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Salad industry on hunt for solution to tainted greens

With the specter of past deadly poisonings, the food industry steps up its quest for clean salad greens, testing various industrial washes and other methods like ultrasound.

January 30, 2012|By Deborah Schoch, CHCF Center for Health Reporting
  • Produce growers are trying to find better ways to make sure that bagged greens are free of illness-causing organisms.
Produce growers are trying to find better ways to make sure that bagged greens… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

Reporting from Salinas, Calif. — For millions of Americans, bagged salads are a miracle food, the perfect mix of health and convenience.

Time-pressed cooks can rip open a bag and pour the leaves right into the bowl, reassured by the "triple-washed" label that some wondrous process has rendered these greens squeaky clean and ready for dinner.

They don't want to think about E. coli O157:H7. And the salad industry doesn't want them thinking about it either.

That's why the safety of bagged greens has emerged as one of the most pressing issues in today's fresh produce business. It's why industry and government are investing millions to avoid debacles such as the death of 30 people last year after eating poorly washed, listeria-laced cantaloupe.

It's why food companies headquartered in the Salinas Valley, the nation's salad bowl, are rushing to find the "perfect wash." They remember too well how, in 2006, local spinach tainted with E. coli O157:H7 killed five people and sent 100 more to the hospital in the worst food poisoning outbreak linked to leafy greens in U.S. history. In and around Salinas, spinach sales still have not recovered from the outbreak, even though no major incident has occurred since.

Today, in the shadow of the mammoth Popeye and Green Giant signs of this agricultural city's commercial core, an industry food-safety team is readying its latest weapon in the quest for clean salad greens.

Its unofficial name is T-128, and it fills hundreds of canisters stacked in a warehouse behind unmarked offices on a side street. Trucks shuttle T-128 to bustling commercial processing plants down the street and to faraway cities to help wash romaine, spinach and other greens before they're bagged and shipped.

Also known as SmartWash, T-128 is basically a new industrial salad wash additive. It can reduce the risk of bacteria spreading from leaf to leaf during washing, says Jim Brennan, president of New Leaf Food Safety Solutions, the food safety subsidiary of industry giant Taylor Fresh Foods.

T-128 is the brainchild of Brennan's Skunk Works-style research team, which is studying its effectiveness on cantaloupes. It may not be the ultimate solution. But Brennan believes it's getting the industry closer.

Other researchers are looking at chlorine alternatives, gaseous washes, ultrasound, radiation, even cold plasma — any means to strip that last germ from a leaf of baby spinach or endive or the popular spring mix.

Like most fresh vegetables, leafy greens sprout close to the earth in open fields. That makes them susceptible to bacteria from soil or irrigation water or roaming wild animals.

Even though Salinas Valley farmers have instituted a gamut of widely praised post-2006 reforms, it's impossible to stop all pathogens from landing on lettuce and spinach leaves. "The farmer can't control every square inch, every minute of the day, and see every mouse that runs through," said Patrick Kennelly, chief of food safety at the California Department of Public Health.

And green leaves are simply too fragile to be scrubbed as you might treat an apple or a squash.

The easiest way to make those greens safe? Cook them. Treat them like meat, heating them to 160 degrees to kill off E. coli and other pathogens. "But with leafy greens, if you did that, it would turn into melted nothing," Kennelly said.

So the perfect wash is high on the agenda for food companies and their scientists.

This new concern follows decades of business-as-usual on the part of farmers and packaging firms. "Clearly, the science was behind, and some people think it's still behind," said food safety expert Robert Gravani, a Cornell University food science professor.

One of the biggest hurdles facing scientists now is how salad bagging works.

Thousands upon thousands of salad leaves are taken to a central plant, washed together, bagged and shipped. Even if only a few leaves are tainted, harmful pathogens can spread in the wash water — the modern salad version of the old adage that one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.

"I would think of it as swimming in a swimming pool in Las Vegas with a thousand people I didn't know," said William Marler, a prominent Seattle-based food safety attorney whose work began with the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak that sickened hundreds and killed four. Since then, he has represented thousands of victims and families in major outbreaks linked to hamburger, peanut butter, spinach and cantaloupe, among others.

If tainted leaves make it to the processing plant, salad companies have to remove the pathogens, which is harder than it might seem. "The problem with produce is that once it's contaminated, especially fresh-consumed produce, it's extremely hard to get off," said Randy Worobo, a Cornell University associate professor of food microbiology.

Earthbound Farm of San Juan Bautista, another Salinas-area salad powerhouse, also is investing heavily in food safety.

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