The reason bagged salads get hit with recalls

One food safety expert says pre-washed and chopped produce is not always as clean as it looks

A Fresh Express salad kit is shown in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Bagged salad is a quick and easy way to get your greens but a series of recalls is highlighting a not-so-appetizing fact — prepped produce also carries a greater risk of bacterial contamination.

Amid yet another salad recall falling in the midst of holiday season, health experts say there’s no need to drop the fresh fruits and veggies from your holiday spread, but there are ways to mitigate the risk of food-borne illness.

The first thing is to understand that pre-washed and chopped produce is not always as clean as it looks, says food safety expert Jennifer Ronholm, an assistant professor in the agricultural and environmental sciences faculties at McGill University

“We know that bagged lettuce is inherently more problematic for contamination than the not-bagged lettuce (or) just buying a head of leaf or iceberg or romaine or whatever,” says Ronholm, noting the bagged stuff occasionally includes juices that are a very good medium for bacterial growth.

“When you cut leafy greens up for one of the bagged salads, the bacteria can actually go and enter the wounds of the plant and hide out inside of the leaves…. These leaves are washed in chlorinated water to surface-decontaminate them, (but) once they’re cut you could have bacteria inside the leaves.”

Meanwhile, a head of iceberg or romaine gets a single cut at the root, which consumers should trim again when they bring the head home, in addition to shedding the outer leaves, she says.

Several big recalls and warnings in the past few weeks have raised extra concern about leafy greens in particular.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency recalled a specific variety of Fresh Express brand Sunflower Crisp Chopped Kit on Dec. 8 after their investigation into an outbreak of food-borne illness found E. coli. As of Dec. 11, the Public Health Agency had linked the particularly nasty strain to 24 illnesses, including six people who were hospitalized. One person developed a type of kidney failure.

READ MORE: Second warning on romaine from California region with another case of E. coli case

The agency warned consumers to throw away affected products and sanitize containers used to store it, since this strain of E. coli is especially harmful to pregnant women, those with weakened immune systems, young children and older adults.

That recall came on the heels of another on Dec. 3 in which the CFIA recalled a specific variety of President’s Choice brand coleslaw after detecting possible salmonella contamination.

Then there is the expansive warning in the United States and Canada to avoid all romaine lettuce grown in or near Salinas, Calif., due to an E. coli outbreak, including salad mixes, whole heads, and romaine in salad wraps.

The CFIA says it requires all romaine imports from California to prove it does not come from the Salinas region.

The Canadian Press

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