You may have heard that a recent outbreak of stomach illness, including diarrhea, has been linked to a parasite from bagged salad mix. And after the big spinach outbreak in 2006 many of us thought those days were behind us. This time, the parasite cyclospora has caused around 400 people across the country to get sick, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The brand of this salad has not yet been identified since the CDC and FDA are not sure exactly where the bug originated. There are many different lettuces used in the mix and anyone of them could have been the culprit. Also they are not sure at what point of the process the contamination occurred, whether it be the water irrigation for the lettuce or the prewashing prior to bagging. What they do know is that they think the outbreak is coming to an end. Since reports started in mid-June and the bagged salad is a perishable product it is believed to be no longer on store shelves.
So what are we as consumers supposed to do? Stop buying lettuce or for that matter any vegetable or fruit that comes from the ground and irrigated by water? I think not. Not buy bagged salad any more? Again, I think not.
In my opinion, the odds still are in our favor. As someone who regularly eats fruits and veggies I have never once gotten a foodborne illness. I also eat bagged lettuce lots of times for the sheer convenience of it. And as a health professional I could never imagine telling a person that the risk of a foodborne illness far outweighs the benefits of eating plenty of fruits and veggies.
Could washing bagged lettuce reduce the risk? Many reports have shown that washing “prewashed” lettuce makes no difference. And sometimes, if there are bacteria on the lettuce and you rinse in the sink, you actually may increase the chance of spreading it to other foods. The best advice I can offer at the moment is to follow the guidelines by the FDA on food safety in general:
• Clean — Wash hands and surfaces often.
• Separate — Don't cross-contaminate.
• Cook — Cook to proper temperatures.
• Chill — Refrigerate promptly.
Personally, I am going to continue to trust that our government will try and make our food supply as safe as possible. Since at this point, I don’t see another option.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to cyclospora as bacteria. It is a parasite.