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It's Not Easy Being (a Leafy) Green continued...

The FDA lifted its recommendation to avoid bagged spinach in early October. But just when things looked about ready to settle down, on Oct. 9 a lettuce company recalled 8,500 cartons of green leaf lettuce sold under the Foxy label after high levels of a generic form of E. coli were found in irrigation water.

The spinach outbreak was the 20th time lettuce or spinach has been blamed for an outbreak of illness since 1995, by the count of the Associated Press. So what's wrong with leafy greens?

Leafy greens are more prone to contamination than some other agricultural products, Sam Beattie, PhD, a food safety expert at Iowa State University, tells WebMD. Contamination is typically caused by fecal matter. And because lettuce grows close to the soil, it can be contaminated by any animals that "overfly, graze, slither, crawl, and are otherwise naturally present in a field."

Destroying harmful bacteria that get on a leaf is another challenge. Bacteria can be destroyed by heating or cooking, but most people prefer their greens raw. So Beattie and other researchers are experimenting with chemical treatments such as chlorine that can decontaminate while preserving freshness.

It's almost impossible to ensure that there will not be any disease-causing organisms on any agricultural product, Beattie says. So it's important to prevent any remaining organisms from multiplying to the point that they can make you ill. As bacteria need warmth and moisture to grow, the key is to ensure that produce remains cool and dry until it's eaten. Many of the same measures that ensure freshness also ensure safety.

Some advice from Beattie on choosing the right packaged greens:

  • Look for signs of deterioration in the product, such as brown or wilted leaves, moistness in the bag, or swollen bags.
  • Look for the latest possible "sell-by" date.
  • Once purchased, keep the product refrigerated.
  • Washing with cold running water will do little to remove more bacteria, but it will freshen the product, Beattie says. (Food safety experts recommend thoroughly rinsing all unpackaged fresh fruits and vegetables before eating.)

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