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E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria in salad

Updated on September 10, 2015
Silva Hayes profile image

Silva has a background as a technical writer and in addition to how-to articles she writes about cooking, travel, and personal experiences.

Make the freshest and healthiest salads possible and minimize the risks of E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria

fresh green salad, spinach
fresh green salad, spinach
fresh green salad, tomato
fresh green salad, tomato

The first step to avoid E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria in your salads is to select the freshest greens. When purchasing pre-packaged greens, check the sell-by date and choose the date farthest into the future.

If you buy loose leaves from the bins, inspect the greens closely. Do not buy greens that are wilted or damaged.

We like a mix of butter lettuce, baby spinach, and mixed spring greens, along with some iceberg lettuce and sometimes cabbage for extra crunch.

The next step is to wash thoroughly but do not soak. Wash greens gently in cool water in a large bowl. I like to first hold a handful briefly under cold running water and then submerge in the bowl. Reach beneath with both hands and lift out of the water. Repeat in a fresh bowl of water once or twice more.

We took this spinach back to the store -- in addition to the mud (see photo), half the leaves were black and rotted.  Just purchased yesterday for last night's salad!  : (
We took this spinach back to the store -- in addition to the mud (see photo), half the leaves were black and rotted. Just purchased yesterday for last night's salad! : (

Spinach especially can have grit left on it from the field. I recommend washing greens that are pre-packaged and sold as “pre-washed,” or “washed three times,” and “ready to serve.” The reason I recommend washing them again is that I have found various bits of slimy rotten leaves mixed in among the fresh, and occasionally a foreign leaf that snuck into the container. Once a lively little black beetle climbed to the surface of the spinach and looked around the kitchen.

Break off the stems on small leaves of spinach, and strip the stems out of larger leaves, especially stems that are large and woody. Contamination, bacteria, germs and dirt are transmitted from the workers' knives in the field to the stem ends of the greens; that is why I recommend breaking off the stem ends or removing the stems. Germs are drawn up into the leaf of the plant through the stem, so the more you remove of the stem, the less likely your green leaves will have any contamination.

Thorough washing and removing the stems greatly reduces the threat of Salmonella and E. coli.

Iceberg lettuce, although it has less food value than the darker loose-leafed greens, adds crunch and a different shade of green to the salad. I cut off the stem end of a head of iceberg and then submerge the entire head into a large bowl of cool water. I then remove from water and leave it to drain, cut end down.

Next, after all the greens have been thoroughly washed and stemmed, you want to dry them completely. A salad spinner works well. Spin them in batches; do not over-fill the salad spinner. If you don’t have one, spread the leaves out on paper towels and blot gently over the top with more paper towels. (Note: since the damp paper towels are still clean, I re-use them somehow before throwing away. When I make salad, I am left with a stack of paper towels so I give the kitchen floor or the countertops a few swipes before I discard them.)

Leave the smaller spinach leaves whole and tear the larger leaves into medium sized pieces. Cut the iceberg lettuce and the cabbage with a sharp knife.

In addition to the greens, I like to add a variety of other vegetables.

Red pepper: I rinse and peel these, which is difficult but worth it to me. Peeling gets rid of any chemicals and wax on the surface.

(Many fruits and vegetables have wax applied at the packing sheds to help retain moisture during shipping and to protect from bruising. Bacteria gets embedded into the wax. The only way to ensure that you get rid of the wax is to peel the fruit or vegetable.)

I cut the red pepper into sections and remove the seeds and membranes. I use a sharp knife and peel as thinly as possible so as to not lose nutrients, and then cut the pepper into chunks or strips.

Onion: I like the sweet onions such as the 1015, red onions, and little green onions. I discard the outer layer and with little green onions, I like to submerge them in water and cut off most of the green stalks.

Tomatoes: Using a sharp serrated knife, I peel the tomatoes, thus eliminating any chemicals or waxes that are on the surface, and I remove the tough core on the stem end. I cut the tomato into large bite-size chunks and drain on some folded paper towel before adding to the salad. I like to first remove the seeds and the gel-like substance and freeze this for later use in soups. This leaves only the firmer part of the tomato and so the tomato will wilt your salad less.

Carrots: I peel the carrot, remove both ends, and on large carrots, I also remove the core after cutting the carrot lengthwise into quarters. I then cut the carrots into bite-size chunks.

Of course, there are many other ingredients that can be added to your salad, such as cucumbers (peeled and sliced), sprouts, sunflower kernels, raw sliced Crimini mushrooms, black olives, dates, figs, walnuts, and shaved Parmesan cheese, goat cheese, or Feta cheese, to name but a few.

UPDATE: September 10, 2015 -- In the last month, a Salmonella outbreak has occurred in 30 different states, resulting in 341 reported illnesses, 70 hospitalizations and two deaths: one in California and one in Texas. This outbreak has been linked to cucumbers that were imported from Mexico and distributed by Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce. Check your refrigerator and throw out any cucumbers marked A&W. This is why I recommend that you peel any fruit or vegetable that have a waxy skin. Cucumbers are obviously run through a waxy bath before being distributed to the retailers; it probably keeps them fresh longer while being shipped. But this waxy coating traps bacteria and is difficult to wash off. I peel: Cucumbers, tomatoes, bell peppers, carrots, potatoes, apples; most everything that can be peeled, I peel it! Knock on wood, but our family never has stomach upsets or illnesses that seem to be common, and I attribute that to the fact that I peel nearly everything, and what I don't peel, I wash in a vinegar bath (grapes, strawberries, cherries, etc.).

Dress the salad right before serving, because the dressing will cause the salad to wilt. Use a bowl so that the excess dressing will drain to the bottom of the bowl.

Here’s a simple dressing that we like:

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons Italian Herb Blend (Grinder McCormick) or Garlic & Herb Blend (Spice Islands)
Salt and pepper
You can play around with this a little and perhaps add some lemon or lime juice and a little sugar.

You can add black olives and banana peppers to this salad and enjoy a salad similar to the wonderful salad they serve at the Olive Garden. Yummy!

To store salad in the refrigerator, keep the dressing and the tomatoes separate from the rest of the salad. You can make up a large salad ahead of time and store it in a large food baggie with a folded paper towel in it to soak up any random moisture, and store the dressing and the tomato in separate containers.

(Returning because of the Listeria problem) I read somewhere several years ago that cantaloupe is probably the most germ-covered food we bring into the house because of its skin with all the little intricate ridges. Update August 2012: Salmonella outbreak due to Indiana melons. Cantaloupe should be scrubbed thoroughly with a vegetable brush before cutting it open. If bacteria is on the outside of the rind, it will be carried inside by the knife and contaminate the edible part.

I wash everything before I cut into it, but when handling cantaloupe, I not only wash it first with soap and water but I also scrub it with a brush and rinse it really well before I cut it open.

When you cut anything open, the knife is going to transfer bacteria from the surface of the fruit or vegetable to the inside of it.

The 2011 Listeria outbreak death toll reached 29. Listeria is a bacteria that causes food poisoning and is especially dangerous to pregnant women.

Update: August 2012, there has been a recall of sliced apples that were shipped out to fast food restaurants and convenience stores because of listeria contamination. The listeria was found on the equipment used to slice the apples.

I actually peel everything we eat, everything, even tomatoes and bell peppers. My mother used to fuss at me about it, because she said most of the nutrients were close to the surface. While that is probably true, I just feel more comfortable about peeling everything. I know I'm getting rid of bacteria and the chemicals and wax that the food distributors put on everything.

Here are just a few examples of why proper food preparation is so important:

In October 2010, celery from San Antonio, Texas, contaminated with listeria, sickened 10 people, including five who died.

In August 2006, spinach tainted with E. coli from California sickened 238 people, hospitalized 103 and led to five deaths.

A restaurant in Beaver, PA served green onions contaminated with Hepatitis A in October 2003. The infection sickened 565 people, left 128 hospitalized and caused three deaths.

In December 1998, contamination with the rare salmonella Baildon bacteria in restaurant-prepared cut tomatoes shipped to several states left 86 ill, 16 hospitalized and three dead.

In current news, THURSDAY, Aug. 1, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- The ongoing outbreak of stomach illness linked to the cyclospora parasite has now spread to 15 states and New York City, with 378 cases reported, according to the latest U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report issued Wednesday. Bagged mixed salad is suspected.

Did you know:

Spinosad, the active pesticide in Trifexas, a flea and heartworm preventative for dogs, is approved for spraying on human vegetables and fruits up to 24 hours before consumption. Incredibly, the FDA allows Spinosad to be sprayed on Monday onto a tomato, an apple or a bag of fresh spinach that you can buy on Tuesday.

Safe preparation and storage of fresh wholesome foods is key to your and your family's good health.


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    • Electro-Denizen profile image


      4 years ago from Wales, UK

      I love a good salad :-) I've become somewhat lazy recently in washing pre-packed loose leaf salad, but I'll start washing it again, especially as they fill the bags with modified atmosphere which don't do the salad or us any good. On the other hand, I definitely try not to overwash salads etc from the garden, as traces of elements in the soil left on the leaf do us a whole lot of good!

    • Silva Hayes profile imageAUTHOR

      Silva Hayes 

      7 years ago from Spicewood, Texas

      Thanks Mercredi and Sandra, for your comments. That dressing is a hit in this house, but they want it combined with iceberg lettuce, which is not my first choice but, hey! when 10-year-olds get picky about their salad dressing, you've gotta got with it, right?

    • profile image

      Sandra's Blog 

      8 years ago

      Great hub!:)

    • Mercredi profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks especially for the recipe for dressing...I was just using olive oil.

    • Silva Hayes profile imageAUTHOR

      Silva Hayes 

      8 years ago from Spicewood, Texas

      Thanks, Polly! We love salad and have it almost every day with our dinner.

    • Pollyannalana profile image


      8 years ago from US

      Sounds a lot like how I fix salad and that little sweet I cant do without, either splenda or sugar and sometimes orange marmalade and yes cabbage and celery for crunch. Salads are really great, I just have to omit anything with salt and I never miss it. Great hub!



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