It has become more common to purchase salad precut packages. They are convenient and require little preparation time. You can simply open the bag, rinse and they are ready to serve.
A new study from the University of Leicester shows that small amounts of damage to salad leaves in bagged salads encourage the presence of Salmonella enterica. Juices released from damaged leaves also enhance the pathogen’s ability to attach to the salad’s plastic container. In the study, salads juice in water — to mimic the grocery bag environment — more than doubled motility, or movement of individual Salmonella bacteria, abetting salad leaf colonization. In the course of a typical five day refrigeration storage time around 100 Salmonella bacteria multiplied to approximately 100,000 individual bacteria.
Lettuce and spinach are leaf crops that are usually grown in open fields where they can be exposed to Salmonella, via insects, bird poop, and manure, among other sources. While outbreaks of Salmonellosis due to such contamination are uncommon, they are nonetheless a public health problem. Such outbreaks may occur despite practices used to mitigate the problem, such as irrigation with clean water, good hygiene, leaf washing, and the like, said coauthor Primrose Freestone, PhD, Associate Professor in Clinical Microbiology, University of Leicester, UK. In fact, salad leaves can acquire Salmonella from recycled wash water, she said.
Moreover, earlier studies have shown that Salmonella are so powerfully attracted to salad leaf and root juices that they can find their way into the plant vasculature during the salad plant’s germination, and once inside, there is no way to wash them out, said Freestone.
Salmonella grows especially well on spinach, said Freestone. “”It seems the pathogen prefers spinach.”
Pre-prepared salads are sold increasingly commonly in grocery stores, said Freestone. They also appear in fast food and in airline meals. However, few studies had previously investigated the behavior of Salmonella within ready-to-eat bagged salads, she said. “We wanted to investigate what happens to Salmonella in bags of salads to better understand the potential risks to consumers and inform future research on reducing attachment of this pathogen to salad leaves. This study is part of our ongoing research into ways to reduce the risk of Salmonella persisting and growing when it is present in bagged salad.”
What the “Ready-to-Eat” Label Really Means
Those labels indicate that the salad has already been through at least one wash cycle with a sanitizing solution before packaging. This produce-friendly, people-safe solution often contains hydrogen peroxide or chlorine to kill bacteria already on the food and keep them from multiplying.
According Sandria Godwin, Ph.D., consumer food safety researcher and professor in the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Sciences at Tennessee State University says. If you open the package and start handling it yourself, the greens can come in contact with organisms on your skin, kitchen countertops, or sink. That can increase your risk of ingesting bacteria or germs that lead to illness.
In fact, you’re better off not touching the salad at all, she explains. Just pour it directly out of the bag and into your bowl.
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