We see the stickers in the produce aisle. “Triple Washed Lettuce”, “Ready to Eat Salad”, “No Feces for You!” Okay, that last one I made up…, but if someone had a sense of humor, they’d make it for the laughs.
I usually purchase the organic, triple-washed lettuce, but do I wash the lettuce when I get home? The answer is sometimes. Sometimes I wash it once, sometimes I wash it three or four times, and sometimes I just eat it right out of the bag. My whimsical lettuce-washing habits are determined by a combination of my level of hunger and level of paranoia. If I’m really hungry for lettuce, I will spray a little lemon juice, sprinkle a few grains of salt and eat it right out of the bag, or one of those bulky plastic containers. I won’t even use a fork and as I chomp on my greens, tell myself that the stomach acid will kill anything horrible for me. If an E-coli outbreak is trending on social media and I have visions of a sociopathic food worker wiping his/her bum with their bare hands and then skipping off the john to package bags of lettuce, I might triple-wash the lettuce myself. This means that on some nights I’m ingesting hexa-washed lettuce. What can I say? Like all of my relationships, my relationship with lettuce-washing is complicated.
My grandmother and mother would slap me for not consistently washing my lettuce. Growing up in my house, washing all of your fruits and vegetables was part of your religion. If you didn’t do it, you’d get the plague. Period. Not because your fruits and vegetables carried the plague, but because God would punish you for not washing your fruits and vegetables. Then again, we didn’t have stickers like “triple washed” or “ready to eat,” because life was a lot simpler when I was a kid. You washed everything or died. And you didn’t mind taking a few extra seconds to wash your lettuce, because avoiding death by diarrhea and/or celestial damnation was worth it. Now in the era of insanely-fast gratification- or-else, we no longer have to waste seconds of our lives washing lettuce. We can stick our heads in our Ready-to-Eat lettuce bags and gorge. That means three more seconds to scroll through filtered realities on Instagram. We’ve come a long way, baby…, indeed we have!
Here’s the thing though: What the heck does triple-washed even mean? What’s the process?
I realized that I had a lot of confidence in triple-washed, but for all I know it could be triple-washed in cat piss or, even worse, Windex. To solve the mystery, I wrote to Olivia’s Organics. Here was the response:
“Hello Dr. Eeks,
Thank you for your generous support of Olivia’s. We appreciate your regular business and are delighted to know you enjoy our products.
We are dedicated to providing consumers with safe and wholesome salads, which we pack fresh daily. Two of the most important aspects of our food safety program are our pathogen testing program and our wash system. I’m happy to explain our wash and inspection process.
All Olivia’s tender leaf salads are washed and packed in our state-of-the-art packaging facility located in Chelsea, MA. Greens arriving from the farm that meet our quality specifications are layered on a blending conveyor and visually inspected. The greens are then passed along a vibratory conveyor and shaken over sets of screens to shake out and remove any field matter. Next the greens pass through a high-tech optical sorter, further eliminating off quality leaves and foreign matter. An additional shaker conveyor feeds the greens into double wash tanks. The wash water is chilled, chlorinated and ph balanced. The wash tanks feature dunking wheels that allow for residual particulate to be removed via spill chambers. Washed greens then pass through a spray bar before being spun dry in large spinners. Dried greens are weighed, packaged and labeled. Finished packages are passed through a metal detector and then visually inspected before being hand packed into cartons for delivery to our customers. I hope this is helpful. We are grateful for your business and are mailing you courtesy coupons good for Olivia’s salads, any variety and size. Wishing you continued enjoyment of our products!”
Firstly, can I point out how amazing their customer service is? So many companies barely respond today, let alone with a written email from a HUMAN with coupons attached! Olivia’s Organics, I’m a fan for life.
The triple-washed lettuce mystery solved! But should we wash our triple-washed lettuce? Does it make a difference?
The bad news is that outbreaks have been linked to triple-washed and/or ready-to-eat veggies. For example, there was a Salmonella outbreak linked to bagged, ready-to-eat lettuce in Norway between 2013-2014. In another investigation, both Salmonella and Listeria Monocytogenes outbreaks were linked to ready-to-eat bagged greens. E coli outbreaks have been found as well. The good news is that these incidents are rare.
Bacteria are very good at latching on to and staying on leafy vegetables. But once attached to the greens, does washing at home with tap water make a difference? A study published in Food Science and Nutrition showed that washing greens contaminated with E coli at a high flow rate reduced the “total aerobic account” by 80% . The “total aerobic count” is a standard measurement for organisms that grow aerobically at a specific temperature. It is NOT, however, a measure of the total amount of bacteria present, and for that reason is not a good indicator for product safety. The Food Science and Nutrition study also showed that washing E coli infected greens did not significantly reduce the number of E coli bacteria. This means that even after a high flow rate washing session, E coli stays put on the greens, as does the potential for health problems. Washing does help remove dirt, particles and pesticides, but avoiding a bacterial outbreak comes down to quality control at the source.
According to a panel of scientists formed by the International Association of Food Protection, consumers should wash lettuce/salad that is NOT labeled “washed”, “triple washed”, or “ready to eat”, but washing lettuce/salad that is marked with such labels does not yield any benefit nor does it enhance safety. As indicated in the study above, the panel advises that if bacteria is present on the bagged lettuce/salad, washing is unlikely to remove it. The panel also notes that there’s a higher risk that we will contaminate ready-to-eat greens by handling them with our hands or washing them in contaminated containers.
Perhaps there is a psychological benefit to washing our ready-to-eat greens. A kind of placebo, I suppose. If you feel better after washing them, by all means do, but be sure to first wash your hands in warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds.
Do you wash yours? Post below!