According to a press release this morning, Consumer Reports’ latest tests of packaged leafy greens found bacteria that are common indicators of poor sanitation and fecal contamination, in some cases, at rather high levels.
The tests, which were conducted with financial support from the Pew Health Group, assessed for several types of bacteria, including total coliforms and Enterocccous — "indicator organisms" found in the human digestive tract and in the ambient environment that can signal inadequate sanitation and the potential for the presence of disease-causing organisms. While there are no existing federal standards for indicator bacteria in salad greens, there are standards for these bacteria in milk, beef, and drinking water. Several industry consultants suggest that an unacceptable level in leafy greens would be 10,000 or more colony forming units per gram (CFU/g).
Consumer Reports found that 39 percent of samples exceeded this level for total coliform, and 23 percent for Enterococcus. The tests did not find E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes or Salmonella — sometimes deadly pathogens which can be found in greens, although it was not expected given the small sample size. The goal was to investigate other markers of poor sanitation that should be used in the food safety management of produce.
For its latest analysis, Consumer Reports had an outside lab test 208 containers of 16 brands of salad greens, sold in plastic clamshells or bags, bought last summer from stores in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Among the findings:
- 39 percent of samples exceeded 10,000 CFUs (or another similar measure) per gram for total coliforms and 23 percent for Enteroccocus, the levels industry consultants deemed unacceptable.
- 2 percent of samples exceeded French and 5 percent Brazilian standards for fecal coliform bacteria.
- Many packages containing spinach, and packages which were one to five days from their use-by date, had higher bacterial levels. Packages six to eight days from their use-by date generally fared better.
- Whether the greens came in a clamshell or bag, included "baby" greens, or were organic made no difference in bacteria levels.
Brands for which there were more than four samples, including national brands Dole, Earthbound Farm Organic, and Fresh Express, plus regional and store brands, had at least one package with relatively high levels of total coliforms or Enteroccocus.
Until packaged salad becomes cleaner, consumers’ best line of defense involves following these procedures in stores and kitchens:
- Buy packages far from their use-by date.
- Wash the greens even if the packages say "prewashed" or "triplewashed." Rinsing won’t remove all bacteria but may remove residual soil.
- Prevent cross contamination of greens by keeping them away from raw meat and poultry.