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How Clean Is Your Pre-Washed Salad?

Is your pre-washed salad really clean? A Consumer Reports study found that nearly 40 percent of pre-washed salads sold in plastic bags or so-called plastic clamshells may be contaminated with bacteria that could be harmful to your health.

What did they find? "The Early Show" medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton told co-anchor Harry Smith the study is a little misleading. "They did a small study, just over 200 samples, and they found that 39 percent of those samples contained a family of bacteria known as coliform, which is a general indicator for contamination. Twenty-three percent of them contained a bacteria known as enterococcus, which is usually associated with fecal contamination. Not what you want to hear in your produce."

"It's not sterilized, it's just pre-washed," she added.

But there weren't other bacteria found in the study that we tend to associate with foodstuffs. "It's important to note they did not find E.coli, they did not find salmonella, but they actually found the worst contamination in package containing spinach. We've heard a lot about spinach in the past. Spinach was a big offender and especially those packages that were bought within one to five days of their recommended sold by date," she explained.

One of the things consumers need to pay attention to is to wash it the salad and then to pay attention to the due date.

"And the other thing that's important to remember is that bacteria usually doesn't like cold temperatures," she pointed out. "So when you take it home from the store, keep it refrigerated and rinse it, don't soak it in water - let water rinse through it. It's helpful in removing some of the soil contamination. And important also to note that just because there are bacteria around, doesn't necessarily mean everyone will get sick. It's not what we want to hear, but it doesn't necessarily mean that."

Dr. Ashton's message to remember? "Wash your lettuce!"

Statements from companies mentioned in the Consumer Reports story:

From Earthbound Farms:

From Will Daniels, Vice President of Quality, Food Safety and Organic Integrity at Earthbound Farm:

"Earthbound Farm does everything possible to ensure the safety of our products and protect the health of people who eat them. We have a rigorous food safety program that includes testing our salads for pathogens at two points in our process; first when the freshly harvested salad greens reach our facility, and once again when they are packaged.

Our salad greens are lab-tested for pathogenic E. coli, salmonella, and shigella, and we destroy any greens that show signs of these bacteria.

We test for the actual pathogens that can make people sick because tests for indicator bacteria are not effective at helping keep salads safe.

Earthbound Farm's food safety program is the most rigorous in the industry. We are committed to ensuring that all our products are safe and healthy.

Our advice for consumers is as follows, as outlined on our website:

Keep them cold! Fresh-cut produce is perishable and must be kept refrigerated in the store and at home.

Consume all packaged produce by the "use by" date on the package - but no matter what the label says, don't eat it if it looks or smells bad.

When in doubt, throw it out!

Avoid fruits or vegetables that are bruised or damaged, or whose packages are damaged or opened.

Keep fresh fruits and vegetables separate from raw meat, poultry, and seafood, especially during food preparation.

Wash your hands before and after handling fresh produce, especially if you've been handling other raw foods.

Clean all surfaces and utensils with hot, soapy water before and after food preparation.

Many experts do not recommend rewashing prewashed salad greens because of the risk of cross-contamination. However, if people prefer to rewash salad greens, they should be sure to do so with a sink and utensils that have been thoroughly cleaned, as noted above."

From Chiquita (which owns Fresh Express):

"We believe rigorous prevention-based practices must be in place at all junctures of the supply chain to address any potential issues before they occur. At every step our lettuces and leafy greens take along the way to reaching consumers, we insist on unparalleled excellence in food safety. Before the first seed is even planted, sound food safety and agricultural practices are already in place. We begin with the careful selection of the ground where the seed will be planted and continue our preventive food safety measures all the way through growing, harvesting and processing until our fresh salads and other fresh produce items are delivered to store shelves.

Our food safety practices consistently exceed industry standards and government guidelines. We work with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other regulatory agencies to share our research, knowledge and best practices. We also collaborate in the development of new quality and food safety strategies. We also invest in research and development to identify new solutions and technical advancements in the food safety arena. It is important to also be aware that harmless organisms are sometimes found in raw agricultural produce, some of which are known as coliforms. Experts, such as the National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods, do not consider the the presence of coliforms as an accurate indicator of a health concern in fresh produce."

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