Salad greens: to wash or not to wash?
When I slice open a bag of baby spinach, I do exactly what millions of other Americans do.
We dump the contents in a salad spinner. Flood the leaves with water. Spin them dry with vigor, determined to protect family and friends from E. coli, salmonella or worse.
Mindful of the drumbeat of recent recalls—salmonella on lettuce, listeria on Romaine—I might even soak my bagged greens, ignoring the bags’ “triple-washed” and “pre-washed” labels.
But one evening last week, I grudgingly poured bagged arugula straight into a salad bowl and ate it.
Here’s why. Some experts believe that washing bagged spinach in our kitchens can make it dirtier, not cleaner. In fact, they caution that our own kitchens are likely more contaminated than the leafy greens processing plants.
The experts at Consumers Union disagree, but more on that later.
So what is the hapless salad lover to do?
Boil the stuff?
That’s what some health officials told us to do during the infamous 2006 national outbreak caused by E. coli-laced bagged spinach that killed at least three spinach eaters and sickened another 200-plus.
I got an up-close view while reporting that story as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. A few weeks ago, I returned to the Salinas Valley where the outbreak started for a five-years-later article for the San Jose Mercury News.
That’s why I was interviewing Patrick Kennelly, food safety chief for the California Department of Public Health, about new advances in keeping greens clean. As an aside, he happened to mention pathogens lurking in our own kitchens that can travel right onto out-of-the-bag greens.
“For precut washed salad that you find in the stores, our recommendation is that consumers not wash it,” Kennelly said.
My editor, a fervent salad washer, was disbelieving. So was my Seal Beach dental hygienist. She stopped flossing my teeth to hear the details.
So I talked to four more experts. Three agreed with Kennelly, explaining that pathogens can cling to a salad spinner, a knife, a cutting board.
“I actually feel that the less interaction with your kitchen, the better,” said Linda J. Harris, co-author of a 2007 article on the subject and associate director of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at UC Davis.
“The answer is, out of the bag, don’t wash it,” added Kansas State University professor Douglas Powell, who produces a popular blog with the unappetizing title Barfblog.com.
Not so fast, say the testers at Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, which warned in March 2010, “Even if the bag says ‘prewashed’ or ‘triple-washed,’ wash the greens yourself. Rinsing won’t remove all bacteria but may remove residual soil.”
Jean Halloran, Consumer Union’s director of food policy initiatives, said that washing could make those greens a little cleaner.
“We don’t really see the potential for harm that other people do,” Halloran said, but added, “It’s not something that we think is absolutely essential.”
Fortunately, we enjoy freedom of choice in our own kitchens.
So far, I’ve made salads with arugula, spinach and kale right out of the bag, unwashed and un-spun.
My editor still seems skeptical. A colleague down the hall is downright stubborn. Nothing will stop her, she vows, from rinsing her collard greens with vinegar.