Food Safety: Lettuce Edition

 
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Leafy green vegetables like lettuce are nutrient powerhouses, packed with fiber, Vitamins A and K, folate and antioxidants. They are also low in calories and contain no fat, saturated fat, or cholesterol and are very low in sodium. Yet foodborne illness is a real and dangerous possibility if food safety guidelines aren’t followed during growing, harvesting, transporting lettuce, both at the grocery store and in your own kitchen.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year 31 known foodborne pathogens (bacteria, viruses, and parasites) cause an estimated 9 million illnesses. Unspecified agents account for an additional estimated 37 million illnesses, for a total of 48 million illnesses.

In 2019-2021, there were 9 multistate foodborne illness outbreaks related to lettuce.

Harmful germs often found on lettuce include E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, norovirus, and Cyclospora.

To prevent foodborne illness while enjoying lettuce, follow these recommendations:

  • Prewashed greens don’t need to be washed again if the label states:
    • Ready-to-eat
    • Triple washed
    • No washing necessary
  • Wash all other leafy greens before cutting, eating, or cooking with them. Follow these steps: 
    • Wash your hands with soap and water.
    • Remove and throw out the outer leaves of the plant.
    • Remove and throw out any torn or bruised leaves.
    • Rinse everything under cool, running water and gently rub the leaves to remove germs and dirt. 
    • Dry the clean lettuce on a paper towel or in a salad spinner.
  • Store lettuce in a clean refrigerator with the temperature set to 40°F or colder.
  • Use separate cutting boards and utensils for produce and for raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. If that isn’t an option, prepare produce before working with raw meat.
  • Wash utensils, cutting boards, and kitchen surfaces with hot, soapy water after each use.
  • Refrigerate cooked or cut produce, including lettuce, within 2 hours (1 hour if the food is exposed to temperatures above 90°F, like a hot car or picnic).

FAQ:

Is organic lettuce safer?
No. Organically grown lettuce can still be contaminated by parasites, bacteria and viruses. 

Is lettuce grown in a greenhouse (or hydroponically) safer?
No. It’s always possible for lettuce to become contaminated.

Should I soak lettuce before washing?
No. If you soak lettuce in a sink, germs in the sink can cause contamination. If you soak lettuce in a bowl, germs on one leaf can spread to another leaf.

Should I wash lettuce with vinegar, lemon juice, soap, or produce wash?
It’s fine to use vinegar, lemon juice, or produce wash but there aren’t any studies that show these remove more germs than plain running water. It’s not recommended to use soap or bleach to clean lettuce or any other type of produce.

How do I keep lettuce in my garden safe to eat?

  • Plant your garden away from compost bins, manure piles, and animal pens. Animal waste can contain harmful germs that can contaminate growing lettuce.
  • Water your garden with clean, drinkable water.
  • Keep storm runoff or any other type of dirty water away from the parts of plants you will eat.

Including a variety of different types of nutrient-dense lettuce into your weekly food choices is an important way to reduce chronic health risk. It’s essential to make sure that you clean, prepare, and store lettuce in ways to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

For More Information About Lettuce:

By Lynn Grieger, RDN, CDCES, CPT, CHWC

References:

  1. Lettuce Nutrition. https://lettuceinfo.org/lettuce-nutrition/  accessed 4-26-22
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States. https://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/attribution/attribution-1998-2008.html last reviewed 11-5-18; accessed 5-6-22 
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food Safety. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/communication/leafy-greens.html#:~:text=That's%20because%20germs%20can%20stick,percentage%20of%20U.S.%20foodborne%20illnesses. Last reviewed 3-8-22; accessed 5-6-22
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