What Does Triple Washed Salad Mean?
It was a long day at work, and you’re looking forward to getting home and eating dinner. You had planned on making a nice meal with a tasty salad. But the process of washing the leaves, breaking out the salad spinner, and drying everything off is eating up way too much of your evening.
During those busy times, we all enjoy when meal prep is made just a little bit easier. Recognizing this, major lettuce producers saw an opportunity to capitalize on consumers’ love for convenience. Many brands now offer packages of salad that state that they are “Pre-Washed,” “Triple Washed,” or “Ready to Eat.” In fact, more than 70% of U.S. households currently purchase bagged or packaged salad blends.
However, because salad packages don’t explain the details of these washes, customers are left wondering about the safety and cleanliness of their food (with good reason, too, since 20% of all food-borne illness is attributable to mishandled leafy greens). To understand what these terms actually mean, we must investigate beyond the label and explore what the washing process entails.
What is Triple Washing?
Commercial triple-washing can take on a variety of formats. In general, though, it means that your greens have been harvested and then cleaned with a light, “pre-wash” at the farm. Following this, the leaves are typically moved to a processing site. They are then either manually or mechanically passed through two separate baths of liquid, dried, and packaged.
The bathing that these greens undergo is a vigorous process. Contrary to popular belief, however, it is NOT primarily intended to be a sanitizing measure. Rather, the triple wash is completed in order to dislodge debris from the lettuce leaves. Such debris might consist of soil, rocks, and insects or other organisms that become embedded in the crevasses and folds of the plants. This often happens as a result of items getting stirred up by heavy rain or farm activity.
In fact, when producers choose to additionally process their produce, such as during cutting and triple-washing, they expose food goods to opportunities for cross-contamination. Cross-contamination may occur from the extra contact with humans and new surfaces within the added steps. Therefore, the cleaning liquid that is used in commercial-scale washing of greens is often a sanitizing solution, consisting of one or more of the following compounds:
Chlorine Dioxide (bleach)
Sodium Hypochlorite (bleach)
Peroxy Acetic Acid
These disinfectants help to reduce the risk of cross-contamination in the processing plant, while steps are taken to bath away the grit and other undesirables on the lettuce.
The consensus of the scientific communities consulted by the FDA is that these washing processes do reduce microbial populations by about 90-99%. This may seem to be a massive amount, but, within Microbiology, bacterial activity is measured using something called a “logarithmic scale.” Logarithmic scales utilize “logs” or “log reductions,” in which each log marks an increase or decrease of 10% of the original number. In his investigation of triple washed greens, Slate reporter, Stephen Kearse explains that the 90-99% decrease is marked by a one-to-two log reduction of the bacteria’s initial population.
In effect, triple washed greens will possess a significant population of coliforms (bacterial clusters), which could still feasibly cause food related illness under the right (or wrong, as it may be) conditions. Therefore, in terms of the cleanliness of triple washed produce, the understanding of both the government and the producer is that there is an expected “normal population of harmless microorganisms associated with it.”
So, to reemphasize, the triple washing process means that the salad was washed primarily to reduce the grittiness of the lettuce, as well as to be able to market and sell a “ready to eat” product to consumers. Additionally, the liquid used for washing is NOT intended to sanitize produce or prevent food-borne illness, but rather it is applied in order to combat cross-contamination during this washing stage of processing.
Do I Need to Rewash Triple Washed Salad?
One of the most common questions that we hear asked in the produce aisle is whether or not triple washed lettuce needs to be rewashed once it’s brought home. And there’s good reason to be curious.
The uncertainty that consumers face is a direct product of the mysteriousness that DOES surround the back-end, behind-the-curtains processing of commercial lettuce. Because the logistics in those steps aren’t clearly conveyed to the end-consumer by most brands, people are left wondering about the basic safety of their food – something that we, at FreshBox Farms, find unacceptable.
The short answer to the question is that if greens are labeled as triple washed, pre-washed, or ready to eat, they do not need to be washed at home unless otherwise stated on the packaging. Although it’s not unanimous, the general consensus of food safety experts is actually that these types of salads and lettuces should NOT be washed again at home, or else additional cross-contamination is risked. The odds are very slim that a wash in your kitchen sink will significantly remove bacteria that survived a chlorinated rinse during processing. However, there IS a significant risk that your sink, counter-top, and salad spinner have new bacteria that could be introduced to the produce during an additional washing.
In summary, the key to both preparing and consuming cut, triple washed salad is to limit opportunities for cross-contamination. Cutting, or processing produce in any way after harvest, has intrinsic risks of contamination by contact. So, care should always be taken to follow labeled instructions, and to adhere to food safety guidelines released by the FDA.
So, Is Triple Washed Salad Good or Bad for You?
As is the case with most food and nutrition topics, there is a lot of gray area surrounding the “good and bad” of washed produce.
We’ve previously discussed how, from a safety perspective, the reduction of bacterial populations from washing are marginal. Additionally, we’ve covered how bleach and other disinfectant solutions are used on produce in order to mitigate risks of cross-contamination. Lastly, we’ve pointed out how the process of triple washing is often completed as a marketing tactic, so that consumers will then seek out convenient products and make purchases based on ease of consumption. So, from a consumer stand-point, these are all key pieces of information that must be kept in mind when deciding if triple washed produce is right for you.
To understand why a wash might be a valuable stage of processing, it’s important to think about how lettuce is grown – very low to the earth. Then, you should consider all of the small folds and ridges in the leaves that soil, which might contain fecal matter or applied fertilizers and pesticides, can become engrained in. Moreover, lettuce is harvested and handled by numerous farm-workers, processors, and distributors. So, cross-contamination from human contact is introduced at each stage involved in getting the produce to you.
Alternatively, to decide if you’re comfortable with triple washing, you must recognize that there are chemicals, the same ones you use to clean your pool or whiten your clothes (albeit much diluted versions), being applied to your food. Some buyers also feel that triple-washed greens have a slightly “off” taste when compared to fresh-harvested produce, and the chemical wash is one of the factors that may be attributed to this. As we’ve stated before, this wash does not surface sanitize produce, so there is no guarantee that these greens are “safe” as a result of the wash, and, in fact, there have been deadly outbreaks of salmonella, listeria, and other food-borne illnesses linked to pre-washed, triple washed, and ready to eat packaged salads.
Subsequently, consumers should know that the label is there to indicate convenience and a lower “grittiness” of the salad, that it does not stand for any health claims, and that it is a marketing tool. The advertising of convenience also distracts consumers from the fact that these packaged salads are often being transported thousands of miles to their grocery stores, and that they’re one-to-two weeks old by the time that they even get onto shelves.
Ultimately, it’s up to the buyer to determine what they value when purchasing produce. Our goal is to demystify some of that decision making process for you.
FreshBox Farms’ Solution
Here at FreshBox Farms, we grow all of our greens using hydroponic technology in a clean and contaminant-free, indoor environment. This means that we grow without soil, and have no need (or desire!) to apply pesticides, fertilizers, or other nasty chemicals to your food. Our farm and team members adhere to the highest standards of sanitation, and ensure that our greens are incredibly clean from seedling to packaging.
Because our plants are cultivated in a soil-less environment, there is never any debris or “grit” that becomes incorporated into the ridges of the produce, unlike in traditional farming. As a result, there are no undesirables to wash off – only pure, good food – so we choose not to wash our lettuces. We feel that adding extra stages of processing before our clean product gets to you offers no added benefit, and only creates opportunities for cross-contamination from outside sources.
So, when you make The Thoughtful Choice and buy FreshBox Farms, you can always feel confident that you’re receiving good, wholesome food. Should you choose to wash our greens, please do so under cold running water in a sink that has been sanitized to avoid the risk of cross-contamination. And never soak or store the greens in water. Stay safe and enjoy that salad!