The downside of fresh produce?

The Minnesota Department of Health is investigating seven suspected cases of E. coli infection linked to Taco John's restaurants in Albert Lea and Austin. Almost three dozen people in Iowa came down with suspected E. coli infections after eating at a Taco Johns in Cedar Falls.

There's no indication that these infections are linked to the E. coli outbreak (64 cases) related to Taco Bell restaurants in the Northeast, but the Centers for Disease control haven't ruled a connection out, either.

Investigators initially thought contaminated green onions were the source of the infections, but follow-up testing on the samples was negative for E. coli. So we still don't know what the contaminated food was. But fresh produce is a likely culprit.

Bagged lettuce: Packaged produce, like this lettuce, makes it easier for us to  consume the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. But packaged, fresh produce is increasingly linked to outbreaks of food-borne illness. (Photo courtesy Michael Dietsch)
Bagged lettuce: Packaged produce, like this lettuce, makes it easier for us to consume the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables. But packaged, fresh produce is increasingly linked to outbreaks of food-borne illness. (Photo courtesy Michael Dietsch)

And it's hardly the first time fresh produce has been implicated in outbreaks of food-borne disease. These latest cases follow hard on the heels of salmonella cases linked to tomatoes, and the nationwide E. coli outbreak linked to bagged spinach. (All in the last three months!)

According to the Washington Post,

"The number of produce-related outbreaks of food-borne illness has increased from 40 in 1999 to 86 in 2004, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Americans are now more likely to get sick from eating contaminated produce than from any other food item, the center said."

Why the increase?
Well, more people are eating fresh produce, especially pre-cut and packaged fruits and vegetables. Distribution has improved, as has electronic reporting of outbreaks. And the aging population of the US is more susceptible to food-borne disease. And produce is a particularly difficult challenge: with contaminated meat, cooking to the proper temperature will kill the bacteria that cause disease. (Food safety experts call this a "kill step.") But produce is often meant to be eaten raw—no kill step.

(For more on the SOURCES of E. coli in fresh produce, see the thread on the September spinach outbreak.)

So what do we do?
Again, according to the Washington Post,

"Consumer advocates think that tougher mandatory food safety standards and stepped-up enforcement are the answer. The country's largest food distributors and restaurants are pursuing self-regulation, arguing that government rules can take years to put in place. Produce growers and packers have suggested a voluntary system with elements of mandatory oversight."

But none of these are ready to be implemented right away.

Some folks are advocating for better and more frequent inspection of processing plants by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the agency is chronically short-staffed and underfunded. And the FDA doesn't have authority over food production at the farm level. Buyers such as Safeway and Albertsons have hired their own inspectors. But inspectors and food safety experts agree that there's no consistency because federal guidelines aren't specific enough.

The article says,

"'We don't have enough science to base those (guidelines) on to be comprehensive," said Kevin Reilly, a California food safety official who is participating in the investigation of the E. coli outbreak traced to bagged spinach. 'What's necessary is an agreed-upon set of agricultural practices. Instead of "Be aware of water quality," we need to say, "Test it with this frequency and in this fashion."'"

In the meantime, scientists are looking at various ways to kill potential contaminants without ruining the produce or having to cook it.

Unless something changes, there WILL be another outbreak.

My $0.02? I don't want to read any more stories about children or grandparents having kidney failure or even dying from E. coli infection. So I guess I'm all for killing off the bacteria, if we can. But part of me thinks, yes, I want safe food, but I also want CLEAN food. Even if eating poop can be made safe, I still don't want to eat poop!

What do you think? Do you worry about food safety? Do you rely on pre-cut and or packaged fruits and vegetables? What safety measures would you like to see? Any ideas about how we can improve the situation?

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Liza's picture
Liza says:

Lawmakers, including Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, promised today to make food safety a top priority when Congress is back in session in January.

I'm not sure what they can do, practically speaking, but I guess Upton Sinclair probably felt that way, too, when he wrote The Jungle, and sanitation did improve once public attention was focused on it...

posted on Tue, 12/12/2006 - 12:11pm
Laurie's picture
Laurie says:

Does anyone have a good story to share about food or water borne infections? Have you been infected by E. coli 0157:H7? Cholera? Salmonella? Others? How did it happen? Do you know what made you sick? How do you know? How many people were sick? Was the health department involved?

Please share!

posted on Tue, 12/19/2006 - 10:42am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I need information Escherichia coli in lettuche

posted on Tue, 01/09/2007 - 1:45pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

OK, I can try to help. What sort of information do you need? What would you like to know?

posted on Tue, 01/09/2007 - 1:55pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I am trying to locate what the preservative is on bagged lettuce... I am trying to learn what I am allergic/adversely affected by. After eating bagged lettuce (and also bagged veggies of many brands in restaurants) I get very hot...stomach cramping... diarreah... Please help me so I can help myself. thank you kindly.

posted on Wed, 03/07/2007 - 10:15am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I'm also searching out this information. My Mom suffers from the same problems when eating bagged lettuce.

posted on Sat, 03/17/2007 - 6:27pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:


Well, I did some searching around.

Ready-Pac says that their bagged greens are packaged in a special film that keeps them fresh. They claim to use no preservatives whatsoever. And their FAQ page includes the following:

"8. Why does the salad sometimes smell?
Our salads produce carbon dioxide, which actually helps the product stay fresh without preservatives. The initial smell is related to this release of carbon dioxide. It is harmless and it should dissipate immediately upon opening the bag."

River Ranch's website says basically the same thing.

Natural Selection Foods buys, processes, and packs salad greens for the Ready-Pac and River Ranch brands, as well as Dole, Earthbound Farm, and many others. Because of that, I'd assume that most bagged spinach and salad mixes packed by Natural Selection Foods are preserved the same way.

posted on Tue, 05/01/2007 - 2:55pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I get exactly the same thing and am so glad to know that there really is a chemical cause for this. I recently bought a bag of frozen vegetables from Costco and had the most violent reaction ever. The frozen fruits seem to be fine and do not bother me. Also, the huge bag of organic green beans from Costco is safe. Good luck.

posted on Tue, 05/29/2007 - 7:04am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

The preservative is sulfur dioxide, it use to be used on salad bars up until 1986 it was outlawed as the sulfur causes severe problems in asmatics, even death. Some bagged salads you can see have it listed, others smell like they have it but don't label it so. I too have severe cramping and diarreah and pain or shortness of breath when I mistakenly injest it from a restaurant unknowlingly from the $12 gormet salad and bam instant runs and pain all night. It should be outlawed. It use to be used in airplane food, and even make my lower back hurt, I don't know if it is still used, as I don't risk eating it anymore.

posted on Thu, 02/21/2008 - 1:25am
anonymous1's picture
anonymous1 says:

I have the same thing. I already have a problem with chronic back pain so I can't blame this, but this happens with prepackaged salad so often with me I can't have salad from unknown sources that I didn't prepare myself. Nearly 100/100 I will get bad cramping and diarrhea that lasts for quite a while and symptoms often last at least 12 - 18 hours for me.

posted on Sat, 04/20/2013 - 7:04pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

I'm a sixth grader who wants to do a science project to find out whether pre-washed bagged salad greens are cleaner than greens you buy and wash yourself. Any ideas on how to do this? Could I swipe for bacteria on both and grow in a petri dish?

posted on Wed, 01/10/2007 - 8:53am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

That sounds like a good way to do it, but I'm going to ask Laurie, the Program Director for Human Biology here at the museum. Perhaps she'll have some suggestions about what pitfalls you might run into or other factors you should consider. I'll post back shortly!

posted on Wed, 01/10/2007 - 10:31am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Thanks so much Liza-I look forward to your reply!!

posted on Wed, 01/10/2007 - 4:25pm
Laurie's picture
Laurie says:

I am not a microbiologist and if you are serious about this project I would talk to a microbiologist. But, from my experience growing bacteria in a laboratory there are a few things you should think about……

1. The lettuce might be clean but it is not sterile. Therefore…….
2. A lot of bacteria (and mold) will grow on your standard LB media petri dish. Some may be pathogenic (make you sick) but a lot of it will just be general bacteria that are in our environment and won’t make you sick.
3. There are tests that can be done to identify bacteria

I hope this is helpful and good luck!

posted on Wed, 01/10/2007 - 4:39pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

(Laurie is the Program Director for Human Biology here at the Science Museum. See her reply to your post.)

posted on Wed, 01/10/2007 - 4:54pm
Sherri's picture
Sherri says:

I don't know if people are still adding to this conversation since it is 8 months old already. But I was doing a Google search on just this issue (lettuce and diarreah). We just got home from going out to eat and I had my all to frequent visit to the restroom. I have had this problem for years. Occasionally it will happen after eating lettuce at home, but most common is after I have had a salad at a restaurant.

Any ideas?

posted on Fri, 08/10/2007 - 11:07pm
Signgene's picture
Signgene says:

Hi, I haven't read anything about what might be causing the problems with the fresh produce. Is it because of the soil or fertilizer being used to grow the produce...are the processing facilities contaminated? Could it be that the water being used at the farms for irrigation...or even at the processing facilities, subpar? I'm also wondering if the plastic packaging is responsible for the bacteria multiplying, as is, providing a breeding ground? Also, what about handling of the produce are the workers hands sanitary? It seems to me that each and every step of the process should be of the utmost concern with regards to sanitation, long before the produce reaches the market. Lastly, is there any data on the safety of hydroponically grown produce versus conventional?

Thank you!

posted on Mon, 08/13/2007 - 4:26pm
NancyA's picture
NancyA says:

I'm so glad I found this thread. Has anyone had a weird taste reaction to lettuce served in restaurant and fast food? For me this seems to be the case. It's hard to describe: very pungent, like horseradish, bleach or ammonia, and cilantro gone bad. It's nasty and definitely not natural. The thing is, I've let my friends taste the same food and they don't taste it.

I was sick with a bad cold last June and lost my sense of taste and smell for nearly a month. Once it recovered, I gradually developed this "allergy". I've tasted this odd flavor on lettuce in Taco Bell food, some cole slaw at restaurants, even a little bit on chicken, enchilidas and clam chowder! I've had the same type of food at home and other restaurants, without this reaction. It's as if the bad-tasting food was treated with a chemical or preservative.

Please, I'd love to hear from anyone else with the same problem.

posted on Mon, 10/15/2007 - 6:17pm
nar1118's picture
nar1118 says:

Taco bell is wher I first noticed the tasete too, but blimpie and other restaurants with packaged shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes. What is this stuff? I'm about to switch to organic lettuce becuse I got a head of regular green leaf last week fromLowes foods with the taste in it. Have farmers now decided that since there is now the organic option they do not have to be careful with what they treat their produce with anymore? I hope that they are nott treating grocery store produce with it in the store. I'm glad i'm not the only one who has been alarmed by this distinct funky taste.
Greenville, NC

posted on Thu, 05/29/2008 - 10:49am
Chemical Taster's picture
Chemical Taster says:

I started to notice the odd smell and taste on bagged lettuces a few months ago. It is only with lettuce that has come from a bag. Fresh lettuce and greens do not have the same effect. It's like a strong cologne or nail polish remover smell and flavor. I have tried a few times to overcome the powerful taste and keep eating, the result: my lips and mouth start to tingle, my throat gets itchy, and my whole mouth starts to fell numb. I have had it happen over and over. I always try to get someone else to taste it but no one ever knows what I'm talking about- they don't taste or smell anything. The only other person I have met with the same problem is my son, it seem he has the same reaction. I would love to know exactly what causes this.

posted on Thu, 10/14/2010 - 10:30pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:


posted on Mon, 11/05/2007 - 6:25pm
Jan F's picture
Jan F says:

I have had a reaction to pre-washed, bagged lettuce, too. Also, from salads when on a cruise ship - they must be pre-washed and bagged. I suffer with diarreah shortly after eating it. I have wondered if it might be the salad dressing, but don't think so as I never have a problem with any dressings at home. Also, when I purchase (rarely) the pre-washed, bagged lettuce products for home use, I always wash thoroughly before eating. Then I don't have a problem. Has anyone learned what might cause this often embarrasing reaction?

posted on Thu, 12/06/2007 - 6:25pm
Sarah's picture
Sarah says:

So sulfur dioxide is illegal on salad bars? We've (my Mom, Dad, Bro's, grma and I) have all had reactions at different restaurants in the area. Is there a site or something that we can check on this or report it? It's not the restaurants fault if it's not listed but I'd like to know for my own comfort. Ha!

posted on Wed, 11/05/2008 - 6:29pm
Debbie's picture
Debbie says:

I get a reaction to bagged lettuce or salads at certain restuarants. What happens to me is my throat starts to hurt, hard to swallow then my gums in my mouth start to tingle and my lips get very dry and tingly also. Depending on how much of the salad I eat that I do not know is "bagged" lettuce depends on how severe of a reaction. This lasts about 1 week...and then my taste buds are out of whack for about 8 or 9 days afterwards. I finally figured it out after reading these blogs/threads about other people having reactions to bagged lettuce.

posted on Wed, 05/13/2009 - 1:25pm
Amber's picture
Amber says:

After having stomach issues several times almost 2 hours after eating on the dot I started to pay attention to what it was and came to the conclusion that it was bagged lettuce!

Glad to have found this post and to see that it is the sulfur dioxide preservative is being used on it.

I have started asking when I go to restaurants now and people look at me like I am a nut job! So glad I am not alone.

Does anyone know if by washing the bagged lettuce thoroughly it helps so you don't get sick? I have been to afraid to even try!

posted on Thu, 05/14/2009 - 11:59am
C.B.'s picture
C.B. says:

Hello..I've been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition inside my mouth...lichenoid mucositis....which is something like lichen planus except that it affects the mucosal lining of the inside my cheeks and underside of my lower lip and is said to be caused by irritation/reaction to medications and chemical substances. As someone who never smoked, chewed tobacco (i don't even chew gum), drank to excess, or take any medication that could remotely cause such a thing, my doctors and I are puzzled as to where this could have caused my outbreaks.

I am interested in the talk here regarding commercial and bagged lettuce...because I always suspected digestive issues with most raw vegetables...lettuce and spinach, especially. But..for the past three years I have been eating nearly every day huge salads for my main meals...and using mostly bagged greens because I don't have a lot of time to prepare them with my busy schedule. I would like to know...has anyone ever heard of irritation and contact mucositis/rashes/ulceration that could be traced to the chemical spray on commercial greens? Thanks...

posted on Mon, 07/27/2009 - 5:47pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Read your post with interest. Within the last 6 months, I have had two reactions while eating out that seem similar to what you describe. The first was with Chinese stir fry -- had eaten the same dish at that particular restaurant several times before and no problem. The second, this past week, was while eating a caesar salad; different restaurant -- even different part of the country. The symptoms (swelling of lining of the mouth and lips) were MUCH worse than with the first incident. They commenced within the first 3-4 bites of lettuce and subsided within 20 minutes of stopping. I am quite concerned as there was such a stronger reaction and within such a short timeframe that I worry about this happening again and closing off my airway. I am positive it is related to prepackaged veggies (stir fry in the first case, romaine in the second) and suspect it is a sulfite or msg reaction. I have found nothing like your and my symptoms (acute mucus membrane reactions) elsewhere on the web. Did you ever pin down the cause for yours? If so, I would appreciate your sharing that info. Thanks!

posted on Wed, 02/17/2010 - 2:46pm
Sheila's picture
Sheila says:

I, too, have this intestinal problem!! I thought, since I'm allergic to sulfa, it might be an additive but after reading these comments, will resign myself to salad free meals when eating out! Thanks.

posted on Mon, 04/05/2010 - 7:44am
C.B.'s picture
C.B. says:

To follow up to my previous post regarding my lichenoid mucositis...I've identified several possible causes and have taken steps to eliminate them from my diet...a couple pesticide residues, common to spinach, lettuce, celery, well as a strong reaction to some vinegars and anything with salt on the surface (e.g...chips, salted nuts or popcorn, strongest reaction...was to salt & vinegar potato chips...). I am forced to not eat raw greens...or spinach in ANY form......I still don't know for sure what is causing my eruptions, but if this is autoimmune lichen planus, I may never know...:(

posted on Fri, 02/25/2011 - 5:16pm
barbara's picture
barbara says:

For yrs I suffered after eating lettuce that I hadn't washed myself and now that I am older severe vomiting goes along with it. I have even been taken to the hospital for dehydration after eating lettuce. I no longer eat it away from home not even on a burger. When will they stop making us so ill with all the chemicals they use to preserve?

posted on Mon, 06/22/2015 - 12:58pm

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