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by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

Greens, without the bag

Last week, some coupons arrived in the mail, offering me free packaged salad greens.

I tossed them. I avoid prepackaged greens for a few reasons: excessive packaging in plastic, high cost and overhandling. The coupon, of course, eliminated the cost issue and I thought briefly about how nice fresh baby spinach might be. But then I thought again about the overhandling and overpackaging part and left the coupons in the trash.

I love fresh greens, and right now I am pouring over seed catalogs and choosing lettuce mixes, spinach and chard, kale and cabbage, anticipating the warm spring days when I can pick my own meals. This week, I plan to start some mesclun seeds in the window, because I really can’t wait for spring to get a good salad.

Of course, I am buying some lettuce in the market now, but it’s just not that good. And I feel bad that it’s grown so far away and shipped to me — too much energy is being expended so I can get a salad. The romaine I’m buying has too much of the paler, tougher parts, and I end up cutting them off and feeding them to the bunny, leaving the greener parts to make myself a passable salad for lunch.

Last week, the same day the coupons showed up, the news was full of a report on the dangers of leafy greens, based on a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The headlines, from papers around the country, were similar: “Leafy greens the top culprit in food-borne illness.” The message seemed to be that maybe eating greens is bad for your health.

I scoured the Internet, looking for more details. Which greens? And why?

It wasn’t easy to find the report itself, and once I did it wasn’t that easy to read.

The CDC study appeared in the agency’s publication “Emerging Infectious Diseases” and analyzed food-borne disease reports from 1998 to 2008, including those from aquatic and land animals, and plant-based foods. The report breaks out hospitalizations and deaths, and illnesses from bacteria, chemicals, parasites and viruses. If you read the whole report, you probably will decide to quit eating altogether.

I’m not sure why the news headlines were only about leafy green vegetables, unless there’s some correlation between reporters and a dislike of spinach. Plants in general had higher disease risks, but animal products had higher hospitalization and death risks, according to the report. Leafy greens came up high on the viral risk, mostly noroviruses — those nasty diarrhea-causing bugs.

I found other studies in the CDC’s “Emerging Infectious Diseases” that tested prepackaged greens, such as lettuce mixes and those bags of baby spinach. For jolly reading, check out “Enteric Viruses in Ready-to-Eat Packaged Leafy Greens,” which found norovirus present in more than half the packages tested, and at high enough levels to cause concern in about 6 percent.

Major E. coli outbreaks in 2006 and 2012 were linked to packaged greens. In California, some big purchasers started demanding that growers cut down their hedgerows to remove habitat for animals, speculating that wild animal feces could be causing E. coli contamination.

But removing natural barriers like border plantings and hedgerows increases erosion, dust contamination and could increase contamination from nearby livestock farms, where E. coli can also breed.

To me, the major problem with prepackaged greens is the number of times they are handled. Greens are picked, pulled apart, washed, cut and packaged. Even if part of the process is automated, how many people do you really want touching your food before you eat it? Because someone has a virus, and someone is not washing their hands.

The solution: wash your vegetables. Since you don’t cook salad, wash it really well. Even the “prewashed” salads in the packages.

The CDC recommends rinsing all fresh fruits and vegetables in running water, and discarding the outermost lettuce or cabbage leaves. Make sure your cutting board and knives are clean, and don’t leave cut fruits or vegetables sitting out.

And wash your hands. With soap.

My personal solution: Avoid prepackaged salads. And whenever possible, grow your own. Even it it’s in a flower pot in the window.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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