Feb. 3, 2010 -- Those "prewashed" and "triple-washed" bagged salad greens in the produce section of the supermarket may not be as clean as you think.
In a new investigation from the Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, high levels of bacteria commonly linked to poor sanitation and fecal contamination were found in many of the sampled packaged salads.
The bacteria did not pose a health risk to the public, but their presence indicated a higher likelihood of contamination with rare but potentially deadly pathogens like E. coli and salmonella, Consumers Union senior scientist Michael Hansen, PhD, tells WebMD.
An E. coli outbreak in the fall of 2006 traced to packaged fresh spinach killed three people and hospitalized more than 100.
The cause of the contamination was never confirmed, but the E. coli is widely believed to have reached the spinach through groundwater that contained the feces of cattle and pigs.
Oldest Produce Had Most Bacteria
Consumer Reports investigators sampled 208 packaged salads, representing 16 brands purchased last summer in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. The salads were sold in either bags or plastic clamshell containers.
They found that 39% of the samples contained more than 10,000 "most probable number" per gram -- a measure of total coliforms, which are bacteria associated with fecal contamination. And 23% had more than 10,000 colony forming units (CFU) per gram of the bacterium enterococcus.
According to the report, experts contacted by Consumer Reports considered these levels unacceptable.
Bacteria levels varied widely, with some samples containing undetectable levels and others containing more than 1 million CFUs per gram, Hansen says.
Among the other findings:
- Packaged produce tested at least six days from their use-by date tended to have lower levels of the bacteria than produce tested within five days of the use-by date.
- Salad mixes that included spinach tended to have higher bacteria levels than those without spinach.
- Contamination levels were similar whether the produce was packaged in a bag or clamshell container. And samples labeled "organic" were just as likely to have high levels of the bacteria as other samples.
- Little difference was seen in bacteria levels between larger, nationally distributed brands and smaller, regional brands. All brands with more than four samples had at least one package with relatively high levels of total coliforms or enterococcus.
Hansen says consumers should look for products that are at least six days from their use-by date when buying packaged salad products.
And products labeled "prewashed" or "triple-washed" should be washed again, even though this probably won't remove all bacteria, he says.
The report was made public online this week and it appears in the March issue of Consumer Reports.
Produce Industry Responds
Packaged salad products exploded onto the market in the early 1990s and in less than two decades sales have climbed to almost $3 billion a year.
The produce industry responded to the article in Consumer Reports by stressing that the bacteria found by the investigators posed no risk to the public.
"Consumer Union found only harmless, naturally occurring bacteria, for which no detection standards have been established by the federal government," reads a joint written statement from the Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Produce Association.
The trade groups also called on Congress to pass comprehensive food safety reform and adequately fund the FDA to ensure the agency can "fulfill its mission to safeguard consumers."
"The produce industry is committed to providing safe and healthy foods, every bite, every time," the statement reads. "Our growers are often the first to eat the foods we sell, and they understand the importance of maintaining consumer confidence. The industry has already invested tens of millions of dollars in food safety programs, and related research."
A spokesman for Chiquita Brands, which markets the Fresh Express line of packaged salads, also emphasizes that the bacteria found in the investigation are considered harmless to humans.
“Experts, such as the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods, do not consider the presence of coliforms as an accurate indicator of a health concern in fresh produce,” Chiquita Director of Investor Relations and Corporate Communications Ed Loyd tells WebMD in a written statement. “Specifically, the publication fully acknowledged that no pathogens were present in any of the salad samples.”
Loyd writes that Chiquita’s food safety practices exceed industry standards and government guidelines.
The Senate is considering a food safety reform bill that would require the FDA to develop safety standards for the growing and processing of fresh produce. The reform would also require the agency to declare acceptable levels of specific bacteria in packaged products.