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Processed Salad is a Food Safety Danger

July 26, 2018 (Updated: September 19, 2018)
Lily Moran

Summertime is salad time.  Nothing beats the summer heat like a bowl of cool, crunchy greens and other veggies—if they don’t make you sick. Unfortunately, one of the coolest, crunchiest greens recently did exactly that. Last March, a nasty strain of E. coli bacteria attacked people who ate contaminated romaine lettuce. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared the outbreak over. But please remain cautious about food safety, and not just about romaine.

The damage done

From March to May 15 this year, 172 people in 36 states fell ill, including five who died, in Arkansas, California, Minnesota, and New York.

Among all cases, 75 people, not quite half, were rushed to the hospital, including 20 who developed kidney failure. It was the largest multi-state E. coli scare since 2006.

If the numbers seem small, let’s put them into perspective, where small grows to big.

Every year, one in six Americans—some 48 million people—get sick from food. Of those, about 128,000 wind up in hospitals, and 3,000 die.

The guiltiest foods aren’t the eggs, fish and shellfish, meat, and poultry we most frequently suspect are the bad guys.

No. Nearly half of all food-borne illnesses today is caused by produce.


Food Type Percent of Food-Borne Illness, U.S.
Dairy and eggs 20 percent
Meat and poultry 22 percent
Fish and shellfish 6 percent
Produce 50 percent

Source: CDC

A 2013 CDC analysis of food poisoning cases between 1998 and 2008 found that leafy vegetables were responsible for nearly 25 percent of all food poisonings.

That was more than any other food product, including dairy and poultry. And that 1998 percentage has now doubled from 25 to 50 percent.

A prominent food safety expert spells it out.

“Back in the ’90s and early 2000s, E. coli cases linked to hamburgers represented almost all that I did,” said attorney Bill Marler. “Now it’s none of what I do … it’s just salads, raw vegetables.”

So what’s going on here? And why does caution remain the rule?

To understand where we are today, we need to look at the salad food chain, from soil to store to supper.

The trend is in the bag

Let’s face it. Most of us love an easy fix.  The billion-dollar Big Food industry depends on us to prefer their over-processed, over-salted, over-sugared, over-preserved, and fast foods—even at the expense of our health.

Ever alert for a chance to make a buck, Big Food now gives us a rising tide of no-sweat salads.  As the ingredients travel the food supply chain, other parties, often in faraway lands, pre-cut and bag our greens and other veggies for us.

What could possibly go wrong?

Michele Jay-Russell is a food safety researcher at the University of California Davis who has investigated salad-related poisoning outbreaks in the past.  She says the raw vegetables that are the most common food poisoning culprits are basically … wait for it … all salad greens, especially the chopped and bagged kind.

“We really haven’t seen problems with kale and some of the other greens,” she says. “At least not yet.”

But superstar kale might yet have its day, especially if demand keeps skyrocketing. Any raw veggie can be run through the production line.  And the convenience that drives sales of bagged veggies in fact makes them more likely to be dangerous.

It goes like this.

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Take a beautiful, fresh head of lettuce. Chop it up.  Add beautiful, fresh carrots, chopped up. Add beautiful, fresh mâche, chopped up.

Give them a rinse (usually, so we’re told) and into a plastic bag they all go. It’s rare for any processing practice to catch and remove 100 percent of the natural bacteria that comes with fresh produce.

And guess what happens in that plastic bag?  Party time for bacteria—moist and protected. It’s a wonder there are so relatively few outbreaks. That’s thanks in good part to another key factor: we eat the vast majority of our foods cooked, which usually eliminates pathogens. But we eat our salads raw, creating a food safety nightmare.

Who’s to blame?

Big Food sources its raw products from any number of different farms. So it’s terrifically difficult to figure out where contaminated produce comes from.

“When it gets processed, you might have four to five farms supplying the processor on any day,” says attorney Marler. “So was it farmer one, two, three, or four that was contaminated?”

“In a perfect world, nobody would mix and match lettuce so this problem wouldn’t happen,” he said. “I think the [question] is: Is the convenience worth the risk?”

How does it happen?

Remember the number of states affected—36?  And of cases—172? Imagine trying to find the deadly E.coli needle in that haystack of possible sources.

Making it even more complicated, different strains of E.coli appear in a variety of different places, including in our own guts.  We welcome those strains.

But not the strain E. coli O157, responsible for the recent outbreak. It’s a nasty, virulent piece of work, creating toxins that are dangerous for humans. It’s typically transmitted from animals to humans through animal waste that has contaminated food or water. The symptoms of infection include cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, and, rarely, kidney failure and death.

As authorities zeroed in on the E.coli source, evidence appeared that an E. coli strain O157 in some Yuma, Arizona farms was responsible for the outbreak.  That suggested, in turn, that dirty water might have been used to irrigate those farms’ fields.

It fits the model. But officials weren’t ready to call it a closed case.

According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Director Scott Gottlieb, “More work needs to be done to determine just how and why this strain of E. coli O157:H7 could have gotten into this body of water and how that led to contamination of romaine lettuce from multiple farms.”

Is it really all clear?

So if the case isn’t closed, why did the FDA issue an “All Clear?”

The agency says the last shipments of romaine lettuce from the affected Arizona farms were harvested on April 16, 2018. Romaine has a shelf life of 21 days, and the last leafy greens from the area were harvested on April 16.

In the meantime, the salad industry has been sourcing its produce from California.

But there’s no such thing as too careful.

For years now, just about the entire medical world has been hammering home the message that whole, raw, local, unprocessed, organic foods are the diet of champions.

Leafy greens and other produce that parties with bacteria in bags are none of the above.

If buying and preparing whole foods leaves you with too much of an unused ingredient left over, like, say, you used half a head of cabbage for cole slaw, think ahead to making cold cabbage borscht later in the week.  Think about meal planning; there are plenty of websites, apps, and Youtube videos to get started. You’ll find menu ideas to shop for that prevent wasting that healthy cabbage, or ground meat, or any other ingredient.

If you absolutely must buy pre-bagged produce, even if it says, “pre-rinsed”, take an extra step of care and give it a good rinse anyway. And make sure to wash your hands before and after handling.


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