Did You Know…your “Pre-Washed” Greens Often Carry Dangerous Bacteria—but the Solution is Easy, Low- or No-Cost, and Chemical-Free?
Although the bag says “pre-washed,” or even “triple-washed,” the greens inside may be teeming with bacteria. According to food safety researchers at the University of California, Riverside, the typical commercial spinach washing process fails to remove up to 90% of bacteria.
The Origins of Foodborne Illness Outbreaks
The UC Riverside researchers found that the small peaks and valleys on baby spinach leaves prevent commercial disinfectants from completely covering the surface of the leaves. “In a sense, the leaf is protecting the bacteria and allowing it to spread,” said Nichola Kinsinger, a post-doctoral researcher.
Bacteria find a safe haven within the leaves’ grooves, and linger there even after washing. It can continue to survive…thrive…and even spread to other leaves in a produce facility. Kinsinger and her fellow researchers believe the grooves in spinach leaves contributed to numerous bacterial outbreaks involving leafy green vegetables.
Earlier research, conducted in the mid-to-late 2000s, linked leafy greens to approximately 20% of all single-commodity foodborne outbreaks. Produce contamination poses an especially concerning problem for food safety professionals, since produce is so often consumed raw.
Safeguarding Against Foodborne Sickness
According to the Center for Disease Control, one in six Americans becomes sick as the result of foodborne contaminants. Sadly, 3,000 of those individuals die from those diseases. A single E. coli outbreak that began in California in 2006 ultimately spread to 26 states where it infected 199 people and killed 3.
Don’t let labeling mislead you. In order to safeguard yourself and your loved ones from foodborne illness, experts recommend thoroughly washing all leafy greens before consuming them. The UC Riverside study looked at spinach specifically, but they say their findings apply to a broader range of foods. Considering the potential consequences, the old maxim “Better safe than sorry” certainly applies!
Celebrity chef and author Alton Brown offered an excellent tip for quickly washing greens on an episode of his television show Good Eats. Brown suggested filling your sink with water, adding in the greens, and giving them a few good swishes. Depending on the quantity of greens you’re cleaning, you can perform the same procedure in a large bowl or a salad spinner (which makes drying them quite convenient!).Water alone will remove the majority of bacteria from fresh produce. If you have the time and inclination, the editors of Cook’s Illustrated carried out a series of tests that showed a solution of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water removed 98 percent of all bacteria. After coating the produce with the solution, rinse it off with tap water. “The cold water will wash the residual flavor from the vinegar, and finishes the cleaning process,” said Jack Bishop, editor at Cook’s Illustrated.
If You Need Another Reason…
In addition to taking steps to ensure the food you eat is actually clean, you can protect yourself from foodborne illness by keeping your immune system and specifically, the microflora in your gut strong. When your gut is populated with healthy microflora, these “good” bacteria and yeast fight off the viruses and pathogenic bacteria that could otherwise make you sick.