Most people like convenience, and all businesses love efficiency. When these two concepts come together in the same product, it can overcome any lingering doubts that might exist about things like…safety. This seems to be what happened when someone decided it was a good idea to start pre-chopping lettuce, bagging it up, and selling it.
It’s well established fact when you make a cut in living tissue, whether plant or animal, it creates a direct route for infection by bacteria. All types of leafy greens have to be cut or torn during harvest. For a head of lettuce or cabbage, it’s just one cut. For loose greens like spinach or arugula, it’s one cut for each leaf. As soon as these cuts are made, a clock starts ticking down to when some type of rot will move up the stem from the cut and eventually infect one or more entire leaf.
Last week the Centers for Disease Control identified an outbreak of food-borne illness related to consumption of pre-chopped romaine lettuce. For simplicity’s sake, most media outlets are saying that the greens are Romaine Lettuce. But they are not heads of Romaine Lettuce. The product that is causing the outbreak is Pre-Chopped Romaine Lettuce.
I’ve written in the recent past about another food born illness outbreak that was “associated” with romaine lettuce. As a lettuce farmer, I am very suspicious about blaming the lettuce when someone gets sick from a Caesar salad that also has mayonnaise, chicken and possibly raw eggs in it. Especially if that salad has been sitting around for a couple of days in a display case before someone grabs it to have for lunch a few hours later.
But I confess that I have never given much consideration to the fact that many if not most fast food/quickserve restaurants are now using lettuce in their salads that was chopped up days before they received it. Just open the bag, dump it into the bowl with the other ingredients, toss and serve. Cuts down on prep labor and food waste.
As part of the Food Safety Modernization Act, all vegetable farmers in the U.S. must now participate in an approved annual training. In that training, we learn all kinds of details about how bacteria multiply, what environments they prefer, etc. And by the time all the farmers file out the door, we know that chopping up thousands of lettuce heads, mixing them together, putting them in sealed plastic bags, shipping them across the country and eating them a week later is NOT a good idea. Unless your goal was too intentionally breed large populations of bacteria.
On the contrary: as long as products like this continue to expand in popularity, more people will continue to get sick. Despite any efforts to improve food safety on farms.
If you’re worried about getting sick from leafy greens, there are good ways to reduce your risk. If you’re ordering a salad at a restaurant ask them if the salad came out of a sealed bag and proceed with caution if it did. Don’t buy pre-packaged salads at places like airports, Starbucks, etc. that don’t have kitchens — especially if you’re not going to eat it immediately and don’t have a cold place to store it.
And if you’re preparing leafy greens at home? Wash and chop them yourself. Don’t chop them ahead of time, and always use different cutting boards for veggies and animal products. If you make yourself a salad for lunch, make sure it’s not sitting around at room temperature for very long, especially if it has meat or dairy in it. And of course, rule #1: Buy greens that are fresh and local, like the ones in your TFF boxes today.