Bagged lettuce claims to be washed and ready to eat but if you trust that claim you could be getting a side order of something that might make you sick.
In September of 2006, consumers nationwide tossed bags of baby spinach in the garbage after it was confirmed E Coli contamination had sickened over 200 people and caused the deaths of four people in 26 states.
Years after we learned fecal material may be present in some pre-packaged bags of lettuce, we set out to see if anything has changed in the way growers handle produce and the route bagged-lettuce takes from field to fork.
Right away we learned the first big change was the 2007 development of the L.G.M.A., or the California Leafy Greens Products Handler Marketing Agreement. It's designed to protect public health by reducing sources of contamination in California grown leafy greens through research and five rigid guidelines.
Companies voluntarily abide by these safety practices:
- Member companies are required to have a complete food safety compliance plan, an up-to-date list of growers, and a written trace-back program.
- Pre-season and pre-harvest assessments are required to make sure conditions that can affect food safety, such as animal intrusions, flooding, proximity to animal feeding operations, etc. are not present, or have been properly mitigated.
- Extensive testing and record keeping for all sources of water used in the production of leafy greens is required by the program.
- Extensive testing, certification and record keeping for soil amendments, including compost and fertilizers, are required by the program.
- Field audits verify that farmers are in compliance with the program's requirements in the areas of worker practices and field sanitation.
The manufacturer or distributor may also identify a problem during one of their own routine inspections. They then inform the food safety and inspection service or the FDA.
This was the case in two different situations that occurred in March. One random sample tested positive for Listeria, a bacteria known to make those with compromised immune systems sick. Recall information can be found on the FDA's website.
Coachella Valley's own Primetime International supplies much of the nation's produce.
I spoke with Mike Aiton, Prime Time's Director of Marketing.
He said, "I think we have had to focus on the training of our people. On making sure that they are following all the protocols... sanitization, cleanliness and that our materials are clean and I think what we've really seen is a whole new part of the business spring up which has to do with food safety. We have people in the field, in our packing houses, here corporately...their primary focus is to govern the way we handle produce."
In a phone interview with Kathy Means, Vice President of Industry Relations for Produce Marketing Association, she was quick to reassure me just how safe U.S. Produce is and how our country sets the world's standards.
All produce that enters the United States from other countries must go through the same rigorous quality control guidelines as domestic growers.
Some recalls of pre-packaged lettuce products are not due to bacteria, but could be a packaging error. You should not be frightened by the FDA alerts but rather see them as evidence of the system working.
Mike Aiton adds, "I think all the way along the distribution system people are handling the produce. Whether it's in the harvesting, the packing, the shipping, the receiving at the store, or putting it out on display and then finally into the consumers home. People are touching this produce. People are really the primary cause of these kinds of diseases. The point has been made that the most difficult part of the journey is the last 100 feet. So consumers have a tremendous obligation to take care of the produce just as it was prior to them receiving it."
So, what can you do to make sure your produce is safe?
The Partnership for Food Safety Education is a nonprofit organization formed by the government, the food industry and consumer groups. Their joint mission is to end illness and death from foodborne infection in the United States.
It teaches you that keeping your refrigerator temperature set at 40 degrees or cooler will stop bacteria from growing. It also busts the myth about needing to wash pre-packaged lettuce and greens labeled "READY TO EAT" "WASHED" OR "TRIPLE WASHED" when you get them home. .
Mike Aiton of Primetime and Afreen Malik, Director of Technical Services for Ocean Mist Farms. also in Coachella, tells me how sterile the environment is where the lettuce is cut and rewashed multiple times before being packaged. Workers in these rooms walk through chlorine baths and are covered from head to toe in sterile clothing as if preparing for surgery.
Aiton suggests everyone should wash any produce they buy just to be safe but does not believe it's necessary for the bagged lettuce. He does say if it makes you more comfortable to do so, then go ahead. He and all the experts I spoke with recommend a simple fresh water wash. They also all agree that if you choose to rewash ready-to-eat bagged lettuce you are actually creating opportunities for cross contamination.
Veggie and Fruit sprays you can find in the produce department at your grocery story are okay to use but are generally expensive and could contain harmful chemicals. Another option to try is three parts water to one part vinegar...but DO NOT ever use detergent, dish soap or bleach to wash your produce. These products are not meant to be consumed and can actually be absorbed into the produce.
Aiton sums it up best in our quest from field to fork.
"We all have the same interest at heart and it's a very important part of what we do. Nobody wants to put food out there that's going to cause anyone problems," he said.