Keep Leafy Greens Safe On The Plate: Words On Washing

May is National Salad Month and what better time to learn a bit about when and how to wash lettuce?

We’re very fortunate to have the safest food supply in the world in the United States. Farmers, processors, packers, supermarkets and restaurants all have a role in ensuring that safety procedures are followed to prevent food-borne illness. At least 12 federal agencies are responsible for overseeing compliance with national food safety regulations. Among these, three major players are the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Beyond federal regulations, there are additional safety measures to further assure safety and decrease health risk. These include programs of state and local governments as well as trade associations and other organizations that support efforts to keep our food as safe as possible along the entire continuum of the food production and processing system.

Leafy greens safety on the farm

One such organization is the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA). Over 90% of leafy greens eaten in the U.S. are grown and harvested under the LGMA program to minimize food safety risks on the farm. The farmers and companies participating in the LGMA program adhere to a set of strict safety practices on their farms and fields. A few summers back I visited two California lettuce and spinach farms during harvest to observe first-hand how employees are following the program’s requirements to make sure lettuce and leafy greens are safe to eat. In fact, many major restaurant and supermarket chains require the LGMA certification for leafy greens they purchase to sell to customers.

Leafy greens safety at home

But when it comes to food safety, consumers also have a critical part to play. While many people don’t consider their home to have food safety risks, it is actually the most likely place for foodborne illness to occur. Most of the food we eat is prepared at home and home kitchens are often sites for pets, old newspapers, dirty laundry, houseplants, brooms and mops, which are all filled with bacteria. This can increase the spread of bacteria to foods that lead to illness.

Cooking foods properly destroys most bacteria and viruses that can lead to illness. But lettuce and leafy greens are usually eaten raw, so safe handling at home is of the utmost importance. When you think of the number of hands that have touched your lettuce after it leaves the field until it arrives in your kitchen you realize the importance of washing leafy greens to get rid of dirt, bacteria and other contaminants. The following tips for washing leafy greens will help protect against foodborne illness and keep you safe at the plate.

Triple-washed, washed and ready-to-eat leafy greens

If your lettuce is labeled “triple-washed,” “washed” or “ready-to-eat,” you do not need to wash it. In fact, washing can actually increase the risk for lettuce to pick up bacteria from your sink and kitchen. During my lettuce tour, I observed the triple washing of lettuce in a processing plant. The facility was so cold that we had to wear coats. That in itself inhibits bacteria along with the super-sanitizing wash the leafy greens undergo. This one-minute video from the USDA explains more:

In preparing to wash leafy greens that are not pre-washed, first take these important steps:

  • Wash your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling the leafy greens.
  • Use hot water and soap to clean all surfaces (sinks, countertops, bowls, salad spinners, colanders and strainers) that will be used in washing the leafy greens.

Unpacked heads or bunches of greens

First, remove the lettuce core if it has one. Then separate and individually rinse the leaves under cold running tap water. For leaves that can’t easily be held under running water, place them in a bowl of cold water for a few minutes to loosen sand and dirt. Finally, drain the greens in a strainer or colander and dry them with a clean cloth or paper towel or in a salad spinner.

Packaged greens that are not pre-washed

Whether packed as whole heads or as pre-cut or shredded in bags, these greens also need to be washed using the same process outlined above. Washing either full heads or pre-cut is best done just before preparing and eating them at a meal. Washing before storing can increase bacterial growth and shorten their storage life.

Produce washes, soap and bleach

Never use detergent or bleach solutions to wash leafy greens or any other produce. Leafy greens are porous and can absorb the chemicals, affecting their safety and taste. The FDA also advises against using commercial fruit and vegetable washes because they may leave residues. Plus their safety and effectiveness have not been thoroughly tested or standardized. In one University of Maine study that tested three commercial wash products, researchers found one product was no more effective than simply washing with cold water and two were less effective than washing with water. So save your money and stick with water.

Taking the simple steps outlined here will assure you safe, tasty and crunchy leafy greens to enjoy at all your meals.

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