How clean is your salad?

February 1, 2010 4:12:31 PM PST
Americans have become spoiled by convenience. You can see it in grocery stores where items like bagged salads seem to be taking over the produce aisle. But the popular pre-packaged greens may not be as clean as you think. Salads straight from the bag are simple and convenient. When the containers say, "fresh," "pre-washed" and "thoroughly washed" you may think the greens are extra clean. But how clean are they? Consumer Reports examined more than 200 packages to find out. The salad greens covered 16 brands, including Dole, Earthbound Farm Organic and Fresh Express. The tests, done at an outside lab, didn't find disease-causing bacteria like e. Coli, listeria or salmonella. But they did detect other bacteria.

"Our tests found total coliforms and enterococcus -- bacteria that are indicators of poor sanitation and fecal contamination," said Kim Kleman with Consumer Reports. "There are no federal standards for these organisms in salads, but there should be."

Of the 208 bags tested, there were relatively high levels of total coliforms in 39 percent of the salads and enterococcus in 23 percent. Most brands had at least one package with elevated levels. But even within the same brand, results varied widely.

"It didn't matter whether the salads came in a clamshell or a bag," Kleman added. "But the ones with higher levels of bacteria tended to contain spinach, or be within five days of their use-by date."

Even rinsing them at home won't get rid of all the bacteria, though it will remove dirt. Your best bet is to buy the freshest produce you can -- those that are at least six days away from their use-by date.

Stricter produce safety standards may be on the way. The senate is considering a bill to set standards for the types of bacteria found in many batches of bagged salad.