Shurley some mistake: should packaged salads be washed again or not? (Not)

There’s some merit in ignoring garbage food safety news stories so they don’t take on too much credibility.

But then, garbage should also be crushed, quickly, factually, and mercilessly, so it doesn’t get repeated forever.

The Consumers Union theatrics about bacteria found in bagged leafy greens has found new legs in Canada – always a week behind — in stories with quotes like, “If you buy ready-made salad greens, wash them before eating.”

This is bull poop.

The March issue of Consumer Reports says that tests on 208 samples of salads sold in bags or plastic containers, conducted by Consumers Union revealed that 39 per cent of the salads analyzed revealed the presence of several types of bacteria, including total coliforms and Enterococcus, both found “in the human digestive tract.”

The Canadian wire story says: “Translation: poop.”

Not quite.

Trevor Suslow of UC Davis told the Perishable Pundit that “a normal head of lettuce is colonized, not contaminated with, a diversity of microbiota, including diverse types of bacteria. Only a small fraction of the total normal bacteria on lettuce can be grown or cultured in the lab. The total numbers of bacteria on a leaf far exceed the number of a single group like the Total Coliforms that were a prime target in the survey. A smaller subset of Total Coliform bacteria are the fecal coliforms. We eat lots and lots of microbes all the time. …

“I am certainly not a medical or public health expert and I am simplifying this quite a bit just to ensure that you are aware that a total coliform or fecal coliform doesn’t necessarily indicate fecal contamination in the plant world. Their numbers on a leaf or fruit do not relate well to risk of illness or true and serious pathogens being present. When one follows standard protocols, developed for dairy, meat, drinking water, and wastewater reclamation, for example, for enumerating total coliform populations from plants, one often gets high numbers of these plant colonizers. They are very tough to wash off…”

“Purchasing packaged salads or whole heads is a matter of personal choice. We do both in my family. I always wash loose leaf lettuces to remove any adhering soil. I never wash packaged salads. I do not support or believe that re-washing packaged salads should be a recommendation for the home consumer. A large and diverse panel of experts published a comprehensive article in 2007 detailing the scientific evidence for the lack of benefit and the greater risk of cross-contamination in the home.”

That report is available here. The conclusion is there is a greater chance of cross-contamination during the rewash of packaged greens. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also states, “… there is no need to wash fresh-cut leafy greens again if they are labeled as "washed," "triple washed," or "ready-to-eat" on the package. Although not recommended, if end users do re-wash RTE fresh-cut leafy greens, having appropriate sanitary washing and drying conditions in the foodservice, retail or in-home food preparation environment to reduce the potential for cross contamination of fresh-cut RTE produce with human pathogens. “

The U.K. Food Standards Authority made a similar statement about no need for rewashing after the Brits had a row about the issue documented in Salad Smackdown ’08.

The issue is complicated, but for Consumers Union to come out with a soundbite about washing greens is great PR and lousy public policy. For journalists not to check is becoming standard for an industry in decline. For the producers of bagged leafy greens, this is an opportunity to tout your food safety efforts and market them at retail so consumers can choose.