A New Way to Clean Greens Misses the Point

Last week, the New York Times reported that the nation’s leading producer of bagged salads, Fresh Express, had found a new, more effective way to clean the fresh spinach and lettuce mixtures sold in supermarkets. Fresh Express will be

“abandoning the standard industry practice of washing leafy greens with chlorine and has begun using the acid mixture, which it claims is many times more effective in killing bacteria. The new wash solution, called FreshRinse, contains organic acids commonly used in the food industry, including lactic acid, a compound found in milk.”

In case you didn’t know, most bagged salad sold in U.S. grocery stores is washed in a chlorine bath. It’s hard to know with certainty which companies use chlorine baths, the concentration of the chlorine bath (it can be up to 50ppm), or even how much chlorine is left on produce after the wash. What is certain is that the chlorine baths used to sanitize non-organic greens have higher concentrations than drinking water (which is mandated to have less than 4ppm chlorine). The organic seal affords some protection, as the National Organic Program sets a 4ppm concentration limit for chlorine-based sanitizing. In contrast, the U.K. doesn’t allow chlorine sanitizing allow in organic production; Germany and Denmark prohibit the practice completely.

It is commendable that we now have a safer (for ourselves and the environment) method for removing bacteria from fresh produce, but we should recognize that this is only a bandaid for the deeper problems that lie within our food system. The fact that we need to be using such strong techniques to clean our produce should raise a red flag. Why is our produce so contaminated in the first place? What are the conditions on the farm, in processing facilities, and in transit that require us to have such practices in place?

About Sheila Viswanathan

Sheila Viswanathan focuses on educating individuals on how to make healthier dietary choices. She received her doctoral degree in Nutrition and Public Health from Teachers College, Columbia University and is certified as a registered dietitian.
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2 Responses to A New Way to Clean Greens Misses the Point

  1. Misses the point, indeed; but, not surprisingly. Along with the questions you raise about the conditions on farms such that we even need something more than water to cleanse our nation’s spinach and lettuce, I wonder how the agricultural industry came to choose milk-based lactic acid as the alternative cleanser. Could the lactic acid choice have more to do with the fact that the industry has easy (cheap) access to milk by-products rather than the efficacy of this acid as a cleansing agent? And, not for nothing, but once we are talking about chlorine and acid, can you call it cleaning anymore. Shouldn’t it really be referred to as disinfecting? I hate to sound jaded, but without doing further research, my knew-jerk reaction is to assume that the industry is "getting out in front" of the next wave of consumer outrage about tainted greens. It’s almost as if they know they cannot keep up the brief decline in food- bourne illness we are experiencing. Phew…thanks being a place to unload about these things.

  2. Cathy Gould says:

    One of my very first jobs, in 1973, was cleaning spinach for a salad restaurant. That’s all I did, all day, every day, leaf by leaf. We used water and a few drops of bleach in the first bath to soak them briefly before the leaf tops were culled. Leafy greens are more difficult to clean than most other produce because everything gets caught as the leaves get tighter towards the core. Sand, bugs, anything added to the soil or sprayed. Artichokes are similar, and I’ve cleaned hundreds.

    A few years later I washed dishes in a breakroom for a large corporation. (I was an actress~ they were just day jobs!) We used a slightly higher concentration of bleach and water for the coffee cups, glasses and silverware. No soap, (nothing they served was greasy) just bleach & water.

    Is that washing or disinfecting? It was effective in both cases. Could we have used soap? In both jobs it would have added at least two steps, increasing the wear & tear on the spinach, the time by 30% and the cost of products by 20%. This was all by hand, no dishwasher or hot water. The only energy spent was my own.

    But~ could it translate to the hundreds of thousands of bagged salads? Probably not without slave wages, and the time it took alone would be impossible.

    I’m just sayin’…

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