Raw leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, are delicious and have a lot to offer as part of a healthy diet. But some experts now call them the riskiest food—more likely to be contaminated with harmful bacteria than even hamburgers. These bacteria (such as E. coli and Salmonella), as well as noroviruses, get into the greens via irrigation water, soil and human hands. So, follow these pointers to enjoy your greens without getting ill.
Don’t just toss unwrapped greens in your shopping cart along with other groceries, such as raw meat and poultry, which can contaminate the greens. Place your greens in plastic bags and keep them away from potential contaminants.
At home, wash leafy greens under cold running water before you eat them; rinse even the tightly packed leaves in the interior. One method of washing: immerse loose greens in a large pot of cool water and allow a minute or two for debris to sink to the bottom. (Crinkled greens like spinach may need three rinses.) Then place the greens in a colander and wash them under running water. Discard the outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage heads. Use a salad spinner to dry the greens, or pat them dry with a clean cloth or paper towel.
When buying packaged greens, don’t assume that everything in cellophane or plastic has been washed. The label should say “prewashed,” “triple-washed” or “ready to eat.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says these prewashed greens are safe to eat without further washing because they are processed in facilities more sanitary than the average home kitchen. Should you still rewash? Some experts say that rewashing only ups the risk of contamination, but others recommend it. Prewashed greens are costly—so just buy unwashed greens if you are planning to wash them anyway.
Keep your sink, counters, refrigerator drawers and utensils clean. Soap, water and elbow grease will do the trick—you don’t need disinfectants. Wash and/or replace kitchen sponges frequently. Don’t wash or store greens close to raw meat, which can drip on them.
Organic greens are no safer than conventionally grown ones. They must be washed in the same way. The same is true of locally grown produce or even greens from your own garden. Outbreaks from big processors get the most publicity, but that doesn’t mean local is always clean.
Antimicrobial washes have not been shown to be significantly more effective than regular washing for home use. Scientists are working to develop better washing solutions for processors as well as home use.
Ready-to-eat, fresh-cut salads should be refrigerated in the grocery store or salad bar. Don’t buy greens that look wilted or brown.
Frozen greens are another wholesome and nutritious option. No outbreaks of food poisoning have been linked to them. Cooking greens will kill bacteria. Spinach and other dark greens are safe after 15 seconds at 160°F.