Salad industry on hunt for solution to tainted greens

With the spectre of past deadly poisonings, the US food industry is stepping up its quest for clean salad greens, testing various industrial washes and other methods like ultrasound.

For millions of consumers, bagged salads are a miracle food, the perfect mix of health and convenience, says this report from the LA Times.

Time-pressed cooks can rip open a bag and pour the leaves right into the bowl, reassured by the “triple-washed” label that some wondrous process has rendered these greens squeaky clean and ready for dinner.

They don’t want to think about E. coli O157:H7. And the salad industry doesn’t want them thinking about it either.

That’s why the safety of bagged greens has emerged as one of the most pressing issues in today’s fresh produce business. It’s why industry and government are investing millions to avoid debacles such as the death of 30 people last year after eating poorly washed, listeria-laced cantaloupe.

It’s why food companies headquartered in the Salinas Valley, California, the nation’s salad bowl, are rushing to find the “perfect wash.” They remember too well how, in 2006, local spinach tainted with E. coli O157:H7 killed five people and sent 100 more to the hospital in the worst food poisoning outbreak linked to leafy greens in U.S. history. In and around Salinas, spinach sales still have not recovered from the outbreak, even though no major incident has occurred since.

Today, in the shadow of the mammoth Popeye and Green Giant signs of this agricultural city’s commercial core, an industry food-safety team is readying its latest weapon in the quest for clean salad greens.

Its unofficial name is T-128, and it fills hundreds of canisters stacked in a warehouse behind unmarked offices on a side street. Trucks shuttle T-128 to bustling commercial processing plants down the street and to faraway cities to help wash romaine, spinach and other greens before they’re bagged and shipped.

Also known as SmartWash, T-128 is basically a new industrial salad wash additive. It can reduce the risk of bacteria spreading from leaf to leaf during washing, says Jim Brennan, president of New Leaf Food Safety Solutions, the food safety subsidiary of industry giant Taylor Fresh Foods.

T-128 is the brainchild of Brennan’s Skunk Works-style research team, which is studying its effectiveness on cantaloupes. It may not be the ultimate solution. But Brennan believes it’s getting the industry closer.

Other researchers are looking at chlorine alternatives, gaseous washes, ultrasound, radiation, even cold plasma — any means to strip that last germ from a leaf of baby spinach or endive or the popular spring mix.

Like most fresh vegetables, leafy greens sprout close to the earth in open fields. That makes them susceptible to bacteria from soil or irrigation water or roaming wild animals……

LA Times: Read the full story