This Spring Think Healthy Greens

Safe and Healthy Leafy Greens

Vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, cabbage, kale, and bok choy, provide nutrients that help protect you from heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. But leafy greens, like other vegetables and fruits, are sometimes contaminated with harmful microorganisms. Washing leafy greens does not remove all germs. That’s because germs can stick to the surface of leaves and even get inside them.

Is it safe to eat leafy greens like spinach without cooking? Will washing make sure leafy greens are safe to eat raw? Continue reading for answers to these and other questions.

Eating Leafy Greens

Are leafy greens safe to eat? Most often, yes! Millions of servings of leafy greens are eaten safely every day in the United States. But leafy greens are occasionally contaminated enough to make people sick. To reduce your chance of getting sick, always follow the steps for safely handling and preparing leafy greens before eating or serving them.

Are leafy greens safe for my pet to eat? Some animals can get sick from some harmful microorganisms that also make people sick. Follow the same food safety steps before feeding them to pets and other animals. Never feed recalled food to pets or other animals.

Safely Handling and Preparing Leafy Greens

Do I need to wash all leafy greens? Pre-washed greens, like bagged salad mixes are ready to serve, the consumer does not need to rinse before serving. If the label on a leafy greens package says any of the following, you don’t need to wash the greens:

  • Ready-to-eat
  • Triple washed
  • No washing necessary

Pre-washed greens sometimes cause illness. But the commercial washing process removes most of the contamination that can be removed by washing. All other leafy greens should be thoroughly washed before eating, cutting, or cooking.

What is the best way to wash leafy greens? We say ‘washing’ but what we really mean is rinsing leafy greens under clean, running water. Sometimes with scrubbing. Studies show that this step removes some of the germs and dirt on leafy greens and other vegetables and fruits. But no washing (rinsing) method can remove all germs. Follow these steps to wash leafy greens that you plan to eat raw:

  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before and after preparing leafy greens. [Do wash your hands with soap, rinsing isn’t enough.]
  • Inspect the leafy greens and get rid of any torn or bruised leaves. Also, get rid of the outer leaves of cabbages and lettuce heads that can tend to trap dirt and harmful microorganisms
  • Rinse the remaining leaves under clean, running water. Use your hands to gently rub them to help get rid of germs and dirt.
  • Dry leafy greens with a clean cloth or paper towel. Or use a salad spinner.

Be sure to rinse leafy greens just before eating or preparing, not before storing them in the refrigerator.

Should I soak leafy greens before washing them? No. Do not soak leafy greens. If you soak them in a sink, germs in the sink can contaminate the greens. If you soak them in a bowl, germs on one leaf can spread to the other leaves. Rinsing leafy greens under running water is the best way to wash them.

Should I wash leafy greens with vinegar, lemon juice, soap, detergent, or produce wash? Use plain running water to wash leafy greens and other produce. Kitchen vinegar and lemon juice may be used, but there is no established evidence to show vinegar or lemon juice are any better than plain running water.

Do not wash leafy greens or other produce with soap, detergent, or produce wash. Do not use a bleach solution or other disinfectant to wash produce.

What other food safety steps should I keep in mind when I select, store, and prepare leafy greens and other produce?

  • Select leafy greens and other vegetables and fruits that aren’t bruised or damaged.
  • Make sure pre-cut produce, such as bagged salad or cut fruits and vegetables, is refrigerated or on ice at the store.
  • Separate produce from raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs in your shopping cart, grocery bags, and refrigerator.
  • Store leafy greens, salads, and all pre-cut and packaged produce in a clean refrigerator with the temperature set to 40°F or colder.
  • Use separate cutting boards and utensils for produce and for raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs. If that isn’t an option, prepare produce before working with raw meat.
  • Wash utensils, cutting boards, and kitchen surfaces with hot, soapy water after each use.
  • Cook thoroughly or throw away any produce that touches raw meat, poultry, seafood or their juices.
  • Refrigerate cooked or cut produce, including salads, within 2 hours (1 hour if the food is exposed to temperatures above 90°F, like a hot car or picnic).

How common are outbreaks linked to leafy greens?

In 2014–2018, a total of 51 foodborne disease outbreaks linked to leafy greens (mainly lettuce) were reported to CDC. Five of the 51 were multi-state outbreaks that led the CDC to warn the public. Among those five outbreaks, two were linked to packaged salads, two were linked to romaine lettuce, and one could not be linked to a specific type of leafy greens.

Most recently, in 2019–2021, the CDC investigated and warned the public about nine multi-state outbreaks linked to leafy greens. Among those outbreaks, six were linked to packaged salads, one was linked to romaine lettuce, one was linked to baby spinach, and one could not be linked to a specific type of leafy greens.

Most foodborne illnesses are not part of a recognized outbreak. The nearly 2,000 illnesses reported in 2014–2020 outbreaks linked to leafy greens represent only a small part of illnesses caused by contaminated leafy greens during those years.

What should I do with leafy greens that are part of a recall?

  • Never eat, serve, or sell food that has been recalled, even if some of it was eaten and no one got sick.
  • Return the recalled food to the store or throw it away at home.
    • Throw out the recalled food and any other foods stored with it or that touched it.
    • Put it in a sealed bag in an outside garbage can with a tight lid (so animals cannot get to it).
    • If the recalled food was stored in a reusable container, wash the container in the dishwasher or with hot, soapy water.
  • Follow the CDC’s instructions for cleaning your refrigerator after a food recall.

Organic, Hydroponic, and Home-Grown Leafy Greens

Are organic leafy greens less likely to be contaminated than non-organic ones? All kinds of produce, including organic leafy greens, can be contaminated with harmful germs at any point from farm to fork. The CDC is not aware of any evidence that organic greens are safer.

Are hydroponic or greenhouse-grown leafy greens less likely to be contaminated? Leafy greens grown using these methods also can be contaminated with harmful germs at any point from farm to fork.

How do I keep leafy greens in my garden safe to eat? Home gardens can be an excellent source of fruits and vegetables. Follow these tips to help prevent food poisoning:

  • Plant your garden away from animal pens, compost bins, and manure piles.
  • Water your garden with clean, drinkable water.
  • Keep dirty water, including storm runoff, away from the parts of plants you will eat.
  • Keep animals, including pets, out of the garden.