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Leafy Greens: the fourth-wash dilemma

packaged salad with text packaged greens to wash or not to wash

I stayed my wife’s hand the other evening. Making a nutritionally respectable meal of broiled salmon over baby spinach greens, she was about to take the greens out of the carton and put them on the plates.

“You can’t do that,” I said. “You have to wash them first.”

Although she complied with my request, my wife didn’t think the greens needed to be washed, because the label on the container said, “triple-washed.” Who was right?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agrees with my wife: “Many pre-cut, bagged, or packaged produce items are pre-washed and ready-to-eat. If so, it will be stated on the packaging, and you can use the produce without further washing. If you choose to wash produce marked as ‘pre-washed’ or ‘ready-to-eat,’ be sure that it does not come in contact with unclean surfaces or utensils. This will help to avoid cross contamination.”

April Ward, communications director for the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), explains: “Let’s say you rinsed some raw chicken in your sink and you cleaned it pretty good afterward, then you put some leafy greens into a colander and rinse in the same sink. It is possible that if you missed a few spots in your sink that salmonella could splash onto the greens. The salmonella would get cooked out of the chicken, but leafy greens are eaten raw, so it would be consumed. The processing plants are cleaned, swabbed and tested regularly for pathogens. Plus they only handle vegetables, not raw meat so risk is minimized.”
(Ward notes that the LGMA only covers the farm to cooler portion of the process. Packaging is under the aegis of the FDA.)

I, on the other hand, had just read the cover feature on leafy green safety in the March 2020 Consumer Reports, which stated: “A washing claim may mean that greens aren’t gritty but doesn’t ensure that they’re bacteria-free.”

I myself had some experience with this matter. A few years ago, I had bought a very similar package of baby spinach. This one even read, “No washing necessary!” I turned over the contents into a colander, and there was a dead bug on top. I picked off the bug and went on to use the spinach, but my lesson was learned.

It comes down to whether I trust my kitchen sink (or Consumer Reports or for that matter myself) more than the leafy greens industry and the FDA.

The FDA recently issued its 2020 Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan. It doesn’t specifically mention packaging, but it states at the outset: “This produce commodity has been implicated too often in outbreaks of foodborne illness, and we believe that FDA, along with leafy greens sector stakeholders, can do more.”

Here’s how a consumer is likely to see the situation: when it comes to food safety, “can do more” = F.

Speaking purely for myself, I’m going to rinse all leafy greens that come into my house, no matter what the FDA says. As an old saying has it, “You trust your mother, but you cut the cards.”

Note: According to the FDA, coronavirus does not pose a risk to fresh produce and does not require any new or specific procedures for produce safety.


Richard Smoley, editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published eleven books.