Salinas Valley is often called the “Salad Bowl of the World.” Agriculture is the primary source of revenue for the area, bringing in billions in sales of leaf lettuce, spring mix, spinach, head lettuce, and more. It’s also the source of several e.coli outbreaks, causing hundreds of illnesses and several deaths from bagged lettuce mixes.
Search for “salad recall” on the FDA website, and you’ll find 825 results. Most are FDA recalls of prepared salads like broccoli rasin salad, tri-bean salad, and thai chicken salad. A closer search reveals 325 statements regarding lettuce recalls. Something the California lettuce industry isn’t proud of, and they’re trying innovative products and technologies to try to make bagged lettuce mixes safer, including new washes for plants and refining the bagging process.
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. LA Times, 30 Jan 2012.
It will be interesting to see how the industry develops, and if they are quick enough to prevent more e. coli deaths.