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The Most Recalled Grocery Product in 5 Years!

If you’re anything like us, you like to stay up-to-date on food safety guidelines and informed on recalls and outbreaks. To protect yourself and your loved ones, it’s crucial to stay on top of food safety news—it can play a huge part in containing disease outbreaks and preventing food-borne illnesses.

When we released an article discussing the top 10 riskiest foods to eat as determined by recall data and aggregated by Consumer Reports, there was one food that rose to the top of the list. What’s more, it was behind 3 different listeria-related recalls in the last 2 weeks alone, cementing its status as a hotbed for disease risk.

That food? Leafy greens, including romaine, bagged salad mixes, and other lettuces. By now, most people know that salad greens are frequently recalled, but do you know why? The reasons are varied and while some are predictable (spoiler alert—they’re most frequently eaten raw!), others might just surprise you.

Why Are Mixed Greens So Risky To Eat?

As we mentioned, Consumer Reports found that based on recall data from the last five years leafy greens were the riskiest food to eat. Romaine and bagged salad mixes were the most frequently recalled varieties, and outbreaks traced to mixed greens were responsible for the most deaths and the second largest number of recalls in Consumer Reports’ findings. So what’s behind all the scary statistics?

There are a few factors at play. For one, leafy greens and salad mixes are most frequently eaten raw. It’s important to understand that leafy greens are most commonly exposed to E. coli and listeria. This happens through irrigation of contaminated water, when bacteria from animal manure in nearby farms gets into the water supply.

For some bacteria, washing can significantly reduce your risk of exposure. But, for more aggressive germs like Listeria monocytogenes, washing doesn’t have an effect on food safety, and washed greens can still cause infections.

Listeria is particularly pesky and especially hard to kill in damp, cold temperatures. It thrives in cool packing facilities and easily spreads on processing machinery, which leads us to our last point.

Even if a head of lettuce comes into a processing facility free of harmful bacteria, it may be contaminated by the time it’s packaged and distributed. Disease outbreaks in lettuce tend to escalate quicker because greens are processed in a relatively small number of facilities. That means that bacteria can spread quickly to millions of cases of greens from various brands and suppliers, making outbreaks harder to contain and faster to escalate.

That was the case in the recent Revolution Farms lettuce recall this April across 6 states. Despite initiating an initial recall, lettuce from the supplier was distributed through various other retailers and under other brand names, resulting in 2 subsequent recalls and a Public Health Alert from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Food Safety Tips for Buying & Cooking With Mixed Greens

So what can you do? Buy whole leaf lettuce over bagged or boxed and opt for greenhouse-grown or hydroponically-grown greens. There’s no evidence that organic lettuce is any safer to eat than conventional, but locally-grown lettuce that does not go through the aforementioned processing facilities can also be a better option.

Additionally, some suppliers have gone through extra steps to ensure the lettuce it sells is safe. According to Consumer Reports, Costco, Wegmans, and Whole Foods have all instituted programs that require suppliers of leafy greens to test for harmful bacteria like Listeria and e. Coli before any products are shipped to stores.

When you buy lettuce, look for lettuce that’s not bruised or damaged. Once you have it at home, remove the outer leaves on lettuce and leafy greens like cabbage; this is often where bacteria lives. Also, get rid of any torn or bruised leaves.

While washing doesn’t remove all bacteria, you should still always wash your greens unless they say, “triple-washed,” “ready-to-eat,” or “no washing necessary.” According to the FDA, the best way to wash greens is to rinse them under water, not soak them. “If you soak them in a sink, germs in the sink can contaminate the greens. If you soak them in a bowl, germs on one leaf can spread to the other leaves,” they advise.

Finally, stay on top of recall news and never eat leafy greens (or any food) that has been recalled. And, if you’re in a particularly high-risk population—meaning you’re pregnant, over 65, or immunocompromised—you may want to opt for cooked greens over raw to truly minimize risk.

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