Cooking spinach in a skillet

Between 2006 and 2019, romaine lettuce and other leafy greens, such as spinach and bags of spring mix, were involved in at least 46 multistate E. coli outbreaks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most recently, outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce in 2018 and 2019 have left many consumers worried about the greens in their salad bowl. In a 2019 nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 1,003 Americans, 25 percent of those who were aware of the 2018 outbreaks said they eat lettuce less often now than before. 

But some experts point out that the overall chances of getting sick from vegetables like leafy greens are still extremely low. “There’s generally a high level of safety around these food items, so we don’t want consumers to view these outbreaks as a reason not to eat fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Matthew Wise, Ph.D., deputy chief of the CDC outbreak response and prevention branch. So don’t give up salad. Instead, try these tips from CR’s experts to improve the safety of the greens you eat.

Consider buying whole head lettuce. Even though the data show that whole heads of lettuce not labeled “washed” don’t necessarily have lower bacteria levels than packaged greens, their inner leaves aren’t exposed to as many sources of contamination and are not handled as much as greens that are bagged, which further reduces the opportunities for contamination.

More on Leafy Greens

Keep packaged lettuce cold and eat it soon. “As you would with meat and poultry, don’t let bagged lettuce stay out of the fridge for too long, because bacteria multiply at room temperature,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., CR’s director of food safety research and testing. In addition, the longer lettuce sits in bags or containers, the more opportunity bacteria have to grow, so buy packages with expiration dates as far in the future as possible and don’t buy more than you can eat in a few days. If even a few leaves look damaged, slimy, or bruised, don’t eat any of the greens in that package.

Consider buying hydroponic or greenhouse-grown greens. These are less likely to be contaminated by bacteria from animal droppings in soil or water, although they’re not risk-free. Their cleanliness depends on the source of the water used and whether proper food safety practices are followed by people who handle the greens, Rogers says.

Soak your greens in vinegar. Microbiologist Carl Custer, who spent his career at the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, says research shows that soaking greens in vinegar or a vinegar-water solution will reduce bacteria levels but won’t kill all bacteria. Still, he advises dousing your greens with white vinegar and letting them sit for 10 minutes, then rinsing. Your greens may be a little vinegary-tasting, but most salad dressings contain vinegar anyway. Salad rinses are often designed to clean greens of dirt or chemicals, not bacteria, and are unlikely to kill harmful bacteria.

Cook your greens until wilted. This will kill harmful bacteria, but it’s a solution only for sturdier greens, such as spinach, kale, collards, and Swiss chard. It’s especially important for people who are more likely to be seriously affected by food poisoning: the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and those with compromised immune systems. “These people may want to consider not eating raw leafy greens at all,” Rogers says.

Stay informed. The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture (which regulates meat, poultry, eggs, and some seafood) post outbreak information on Twitter; you can follow them at @FDAfood and @USDAFoodSafety. On both agency websites, you can also sign up for email alerts.

Report any suspected food poisoning. If you think you got sick from food, contact your local health department and ask to speak with the environmental health specialist or sanitarian. You can also contact the FDA or USDA directly. (For more information, see “How to Report Food Poisoning.”)

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the March 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.