Is bagged lettuce a safe choice?

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When talking with consumers about food safety, a common question is: “Do we need to wash bagged lettuce?”
According to The Partnership for Food Safety Education (fightbac.org) it is not necessary. They say “while it is important to wash most fruits and vegetables, if packaged greens are labeled ready-to-eat, washed or triple washed then the product does not need to be washed at home. Pre-washed greens have been through a cleaning process immediately before going into the bag. Re-washing and handling the greens creates opportunities for contamination.”
One of the key points in the above recommendation is about contaminating the produce after you get it home. Sometimes the re-washing and handling the lettuce at home can cause more problems than if you used it directly out of the bag. They also recommend, “handling pre-washed greens with clean hands, and making sure cutting boards, utensils and countertops are clean.”
Another thing to keep in mind is to buy bags kept cold in the grocery store, pay attention to sell-by dates and keep it refrigerated once you get the bags home. When you’re ready to use the lettuce, open the bag and dump it directly into a clean bowl, don’t stick your dirty hands into the bag.
I’ve visited a couple of the bagged lettuce companies in California and personally feel comfortable eating these products directly from the bag. I don’t think I could wash the produce as good myself.
I’ve also had consumers ask if washing produce with soap or bleach is a good practice or extra “insurance” against bacteria. Actually, this may cause more problems.
Soap and bleach are not food grade products and may have some impurities. In general, soap or bleach should not be used directly on food. Sometimes people will use a little soap to scrub the rinds on foods like melons, but is should only be used on foods that will have the outside rinds removed and not eaten.
You may remember about six or seven years ago several people died and many others got sick after eating raw bagged spinach. They traced this back to fields that had been contaminated with animal waste. Since then, the raw produce industry has voluntarily adopted good agricultural practices that help to reduce the risk of contaminating leafy green vegetables.
All foods do carry some risk, but you can reduce your possibilities of getting sick by following the recommendations. Some foods appear to have higher risks than others, because they have a history of foodborne illness outbreaks in the past. These foods are melons, berries, green onions, tomatoes and spinach. People who are considered high risk for contracting a foodborne illness may wish to eat them well-cooked or avoid products that are usually eaten without cooking. Those more at risk for getting a foodborne illness are the very young, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems such people with organ transplants or AIDS.
Cheryle Jones Syracuse is a Family and Consumer Science staff member and can be reached at NC Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, at 253-2610.