Salad Smackdown at Food Micro ’08

The press releases were fast and furious and the excitement non-stop  today in response to some new research about Salmonella sticking to salad greens that was presented at Food Micro ’08 in Aberdeen.

Professor Gadi “Flagella” Frankel of Imperial College London was first into the ring yesterday with a press release containing tragically cliché headline, How Salmonella bacteria contaminate salad leaves — it’s not rocket science, and produced by his own Imperial Colleague that said,

"In their efforts to eat healthily, people are eating more salad products, choosing to buy organic brands, and preferring the ease of ‘pre-washed’ bagged salads from supermarkets, then ever before. All of these factors, together with the globalisation of the food market, mean that cases of Salmonella and E. coli poisoning caused by salads are likely to rise in the future. This is why it’s important to get a head start with understanding how contamination occurs now.”

U.K. media outlets rose to the challenge, with the Horrible Herald inverting the order of the press release to lede with,

“The growing popularity of pre-packed salads is likely to lead to an increase in food poisoning cases, scientists warned yesterday.

“They said the increased uptake in the salads in particular, but also in fruit and vegetables, is likely to be reflected in a future rise in food poisoning.

Professor Gadi Frankel, from Imperial College, said a greater understanding of how salads are contaminated is important because cases of food poisoning caused by salads are "likely to rise in the future."

The Fresh Prepared Salads Producer Group – really, that’s the association name, how about Big Salad – today, “completely refutes suggestions in the press that prepared salads are unsafe to eat," and tag teamed with Prof. Bill “Critical” Keevil, professor of environmental health care at the University of Southampton, who was at the conference in Aberdeen where the salad research which sparked the stories was presented, and said,

"I was extremely disappointed by the quality of the data presented and its interpretation. We have known for a long time the various mechanisms that bacteria can use to attach itself to a range of surfaces, including plants. This is not new."

Big Salad said in a statement:,

"Our products sold as ‘washed and ready to eat’ are just that. We have long recognised that to produce a safe-to-eat salad one needs safe-to-eat produce off the field. To achieve that, we strive to ensure that dangerous microbes do not get the opportunity to contact our crops – such that hypotheses as to how they initially adhere are irrelevant. The UK prepared salads sector has an unrivalled safety record and employs stringent controls, described as ‘excellent’ by the FSA – not necessarily the case elsewhere in the world. There has not been a confirmed outbreak associated with prepared salad since 2001 in the UK. … There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that re-washing a prepared salad will do any good at all – and it’s even possible that exposing the salad leaf to the ‘kitchen sink’ will increase the food safety risk. Indeed, the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (FSA) has recently determined that re-washing is unlikely to remove any contamination remaining on the produce after the manufacturing process.”

To further muddle things, Judith “Hey Now” Hilton wrote on a U.K. Food Standards Agency blog that,

“In fact, while we advise that it’s a good idea to wash salad items in general, there is no need for consumers to rewash ready-to-eat bagged salads unless it says otherwise on the packet.  You can best help yourself by following good food hygiene practice at home – it’s important to follow the 4Cs – cooking, cleaning, chilling, avoiding cross contamination.”

Smackdown. Consumers, if you get sick from ready-to-eat salads, it’s your fault.