Stephen Jardine: That healthy salad may not do you any good

You should still re-wash your salad. Picture: Dan Phillips
You should still re-wash your salad. Picture: Dan Phillips
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Bags of leaves are being investigated after an E.coli outbreak, writes Stephen Jardine

This week I had the pleasure of picking and eating a lettuce from the garden. I savoured the experience because it was the only one of a dozen planted that had survived the slugs and bugs.

To be on the safe side, I gave it a good wash. But then you would, wouldn’t you ? It has been in the soil for six weeks with the neighbourhood cat and other assorted wildlife frequently visiting the vegetable patch.

Yet when it comes to supermarket bags of salad, we seem to be happy to devolve responsibility.

So called ready-to-eat salad is a booming sector of the grocery market with millions of bags being produced every week.

But if the simple phrase ‘pre-washed’ is enough to make you lower your guard when it comes to food safety, it might be time to think again.

Public Health England is investigating a major outbreak of E. coli poisoning which could be linked to eating bags of mixed salad leaves, including rocket.

Most of the 100 plus cases are in England but Scotland and Wales are also affected. The strain in question is O157 which can cause diarrohea, severe stomach pain and even kidney failure in some cases.

This isn’t the first problem with bacteria and salad. Three years ago 300 people became ill following an outbreak of Cryptosporidium infections linked to salad leaves.

Salads require lots of water to grow and if cattle waste is present in the groundwater, problems can occur.

The solution lies in our own hands. In her shocking book on the food industry, Swallow This,, investigative journalist Joanna Blythman details the unpalatable steps taken to produce bags of salad. Leaves are usually washed in a chlorine solution to eliminate bugs and then bagged with modified air to try to reduce discolouring and extend shelf life.

Even that intensive process does not guarantee the leaves are risk free.

The simple answer is to re-wash it yourself or to avoid bagged salad leaves and simply buy and wash your own lettuce.

Part of the problem with salad leaves is the fact they appear so clean and fresh on the surface. While a partially cooked sausage on the barbecue is an obvious cause for concern, salads look like they can only do us good. The reality can be different.

Scotland’s leading bacteriologist Professor Hugh Pennington from Aberdeen University has warned certain types of bacteria found in bags of salad are proving very difficult to kill. While undercooked beefburgers have always been seen as the risky food in the summer, in reality more cases of illness can be traced back to salad leaves carrying bacteria.

If you still have any doubts about the risks associated with pre-prepared salads, look no further than Bill Marler, an American lawyer specialising in food poisoing cases. Asked to name six foods he will never eat, bagged salad was high on the list.

For the sake of convenience, most of us won’t take that hardline approach. But a good wash under the tap might be the difference between a salad that does you good and one that does you harm.