Bagged Salads Pose Surprising Health Risk

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Packaged salads labeled “prewashed” or “triple washed” might not be very clean at all, according to a recent report, and government standards may not be enough to protect consumers from tainted vegetables.

Even if mixed salads in bags, clamshells and other packages don’t contain deadly E. coli or Salmonella, they could still contain harmful contaminants that can reach the greens before and even during their prewashing, a Consumers Union study found.

In a study by Consumer Reports’ parent company, 39% of more than 200 “ready-to-eat” salad samples were found to contain coliforms usually found in the digestive tract of animals and humans, according to an article in the March issue of Consumer Reports Magazine.

The brands found to contain the fecal coliforms included Dole, Fresh Express, Earthbound Farm Organic and regional and store brands, the Consumers Union reported. Many of the salad packages with the highest levels of bacteria were within five days of their use-by date and contained spinach, and there was no significant difference in bacteria levels between organic and non-organic salads.

In 2006, E. coli found in Dole baby spinach caused hundreds of illnesses, 103 hospitalizations and three deaths, according to the Consumers Union. But even after that, there are still no federal limits on bacteria present on leafy greens.

In fact, there are no such limits from the Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Department of Agriculture that apply to any produce, yet meat and milk are much more regulated, and any fecal contamination in drinking water is considered a serious health violation, according to the Consumers Union.

Until such limits on bacteria and produce are put in place, Consumer Reports recommends that grocery shoppers who want to buy packaged salads look for those furthest from the use-by date and re-wash the salads at home.

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