Why Restaurants and Grocers Should Trash the Bagged Lettuce

lettuce“Once, a long, long time ago…this lettuce was washed”

Lettuce is one of the most consistently consumed items of produce in America. Not only are salads the most popular appetizers, but lettuce is used frequently in entrees, too. Unfortunately there has been a recent uptick in food-borne illnesses from lettuce supplies. What has changed? The process of getting lettuce to our table, and some of these processes are leaving consumers helpless.

It used to be that consumers and restaurants could only buy whole heads of lettuce. Restaurants had to hire staff to clean and prepare the lettuce for service. The industry got more efficient, however, with the advent of supply-side washing and cutting. Certainly this meant that restaurants could reduce costs and simplify their operations. The proliferation of bagged salad products in grocery stores indicates soaring popularity among consumers, too.

The problem, however, is that food isn’t ever “sterilized” (ie eradicated completely of bacteria, spores, and viri). Once washed, lettuce still has bacteria, though in small amounts. That bacteria multiplies and the longer the time is between the wash and consumption, the more the bacteria will exponentially multiply. This is the problem with “prewashed” lettuce. It might as well read “once, a long, long time ago this lettuce was washed”. I took a bath last week, but that doesn’t mean I’m clean today. What’s scary is that this false sense of security is leading restaurants and consumers into simply dumping lettuce into bowls for immediate consumption; bad news!

Even worse, though, is the advent of supply-side lettuce chopping, especially when the head is separated in the field by the pickers’ cutting. When lettuce is torn or cut, it heals by placing a membrane over the wound. The wound, which was just smeared with the bacteria-laden field worker’s or machine’s knife, encapsulates the bacteria in the lettuce, and no amount of washing later in the production line to consumer can remove it.

This is dangerous stuff, and should be taken very seriously not only by consumers, but by restaurants. Restaurants should go back to purchasing heads and washing and tearing them on site. Not only is the health of the customer affected, future sales are affected when their food makes customers sick. I feel that restaurants that are avoiding these supply-side processes should boast and differentiate themselves from the establishments that are careless with their lettuce preparations.

There is almost no such thing as a “24hr bug”. It is almost always some level of food poisoning. When there is a dangerous component of the supply chain that leaves consumers helpless, especially one that is as ubiquitous as lettuce, we can only rely on a consumer movement to force an appropriate change.

Let your favorite restaurants know that you care about the way lettuce is handled. Ask servers if the restaurant used bagged lettuce. Tell the manager that you want on-site lettuce separate. DON’T buy the bagged product in the grocery store. Don’t rely on the EPA to change this. They aren’t the ones who will have to count the tiles on your bathroom floor. YOU have to make the change.

See also:
  • “Why Lettuce Keeps Making Us Sick” – Modern Farmer
  • “Once rare stomach illness becoming more widespread” – WRAL

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