Is Your Salad Safe? A Guide to Leafy Greens

butter lettuce

Is Your Salad Safe? My Guide to Leafy Greens will help you sort out the facts from the myths about what might be lurking in your salad bowl (E coli, salmonella, listeria, norovirus…yuck!) and help you figure out what you can do about it.


salad greens in a white bowl

I know all about runny eggs and underdone hamburgers, but do I have to give up my salads too??

Salads are one of the joys of life and I never want to give them up ~ but I also need to pay attention to all the news about potential dangers associated with them. I’ve dug deep and come up with what I think are the relevant facts. Like with all complicated issues, there aren’t easy answers, but armed with the facts we can keep on enjoying fabulous healthy salads together.

Blistered corn and asparagus salad with salmon in a wooden bowl

Are salad greens safe?

Believe it or not salad greens are number 1 on the FDAs list of the most dangerous foods in America, so we definitely need to take the issue seriously. As a group, they’re more likely to make us sick than other foods. Greens can harbor pesticides, and are susceptible to Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, all dangerous microbes. So much so that the FDC recommends people at risk, (those with compromised immune systems, the elderly, the very young, and pregnant women,) avoid eating them entirely!

This is super scary to a salad lover like me, so I decided to research the issue to get to the bottom of the problem.

tossing a strawberry arugula salad

What’s the issue with fresh greens?

There are 3 main issues: 

  • Greens are grown in fields where the soil and water can easily be contaminated with pesticides and dangerous germs and bacteria. Central processing, widespread distribution and more imported produce complicate the issue.
  • Greens are delicate and can break or bruise easily, allowing contamination to penetrate.
  • We eat greens raw, so there is no cooking heat to kill dangerous bacteria that might be present. (Cooking is one of the best ways to make food safe to eat, and that doesn’t apply to salads.)

Spring salad with creamy tarragon dressing

What are the most dangerous types of greens?

  • Romaine lettuce seems to be one of the most dangerous lettuces you can eat. Some have theorized that it’s because romaine has delicate leaves that bruise or break easily, allowing tainted water to penetrate. Another theory is that we hear about romaine poisonings more often because it is the most popular lettuce in the US, and served in so many restaurants and fast food outlets.
  • Spinach and kale are on the’dirty dozen’ list of most contaminated vegetables (as cited by the nonprofit, Environmental Working Group) This list specifically refers to pesticide contamination.
  • Bagged pre-cut lettuce or salad kits are a problem because they contain greens from various places, any one of which could contaminate the entire bag. And the more greens are handled and processed the bigger the risk for contamination. Additionally, cut greens have more exposed areas making them vulnerable to possible contamination. The cut edges of produce can actually encourage pathogens like salmonella to grow.

Romaine lettuce

Which salad greens are safer?

  • full heads of lettuce are safer than cut greens, as long as you remove the outer leaves. This is because contaminates have a harder time penetrating the whole head. Heads of lettuce are still susceptible to contaminants that enter through their roots, however.
  • hydroponically grown greens (greens not grown in soil or fields) are safer, as long as the water used to irrigate them is clean.
  • Organic produce is a safer choice, but not free from risk. You will get less pesticides, but the greens can still become contaminated by dangerous bacteria in the fields and during handling.
  • Farmer’s market greens are a safer choice as well because you know the greens are coming from a single source, but be aware that smaller farms often have less budget and resources for implementing complex safety regulations.


living watercress

What you can do to minimize your risk

  • Washing your greens is important, but know that this will not protect you completely. Washing can remove some or all of dirt and pesticides, but it can’t kill bacteria. What’s worse, some bacteria can live inside the lettuce itself, not on the outside.
  • Buy the freshest greens you can find. Avoid buying bruised or damaged greens, and always remove outer leaves from heads.
  • Keep greens refrigerated and use within a week.
  • Avoid cross contamination with other foods, keep greens bagged or in containers in the crisper.
  • Wash your produce just before using, not when you get home from the supermarket.
  • Wash your hands well before handling greens ~ yes, you can contaminate your greens too!

purple kale

My greens are organic, do I need to wash them?

Yes, organic produce can still be exposed to pesticides like regular produce. That goes for home grown, too!

Are ‘triple washed’ greens clean enough?

I think so, and personally I don’t re-wash triple washed greens.  My thinking is that they are already cleaner than any home rinsing is going to get them. But be aware that, as mentioned above, washing doesn’t guarantee that your greens are safe from pathogens.

Do special produce washes work?

None of them have been found to be effective and in fact the Food and Drug Administration does not recommend using produce washes. For now, you can follow the FDAs tips for washing produce here.

washing fresh greens

Will vinegar kill E.coli?

It will only help kill bacteria on the surface of greens, and the concentration and length of time needed to really do the job would be impractical for everyday eating.

Lettuce mix for a Salmon Cobb Salad ~ Is your Salad Safe?

Play it safe and cook your salad!

One great way to enjoy healthy greens without the risk is to wilt or cook them. Cooking greens effectively kills the bacteria. There are lots of delicious ways to do this ~

recipes using cooked greens (A guide to leafy greens)

The bottom line…

1. Your chances of being sickened by your greens are slim, but real. The risks of eating raw greens can’t be 100% eradicated at this point in time.

2. Those in a higher risk category (children under 5, seniors, pregnant women, those with weakened immune systems) should consider avoiding raw greens.

3. For all others, the health benefits of leafy greens outweigh the risks, so use the best practices outlined above and enjoy gorgeous salads! That’s what I plan to do 🙂


A platter of Fully Loaded Wedge Salad (A guide to leafy greens)


guide to leafy greens pin 2

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    Leave a Reply

  • Reply
    February 8, 2020 at 5:52 am

    Fantastic post and certainly something that has been on my mind lately. Since the latest romaine recall, I have stopped buying salad greens altogether. I love salads, but plan to cook my greens going forward. One green I especially enjoy is arugula. I don’t hear much about it, but I assume it falls in the same category as the others. I find it is sturdier and I try to tell my mind it may be safer? Don’t know if you came upon any specifics for arugula or if it is simply grouped in with the others. Love your blog and thank you for this informative post!

    • Reply
      February 8, 2020 at 7:21 am

      I did check into arugula because it’s one of my favorites too, but you’re right, it’s lumped in there with all the others as far as risk. Part of the issue is that arugula is sold loose leaf, which is a specific risk factor. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, thanks.

  • Reply
    Velda Holland
    February 7, 2020 at 11:06 pm

    Hi Sue, Love your site. Read your post re greens with live frog. A friend and I had lunch in local cafe here in Burradoo NSW Australia and there was a live snail in the salad. We pointed this out to the waitress and she said “Oh he won’t eat much. She still charged us full price though.

  • Reply
    February 7, 2020 at 8:24 pm

    I never eat salad in a restaurant or cafe or on an airline. Always change to cooked vegetables and in the case of an airline flight, just push the salad aside. Not prepared to run the risk of upset stomach. It usually strikes fairly quickly in my case, not even giving me time to get home!!
    Thanks Sue for good advice and information.

  • Reply
    low and slow
    February 7, 2020 at 5:11 pm

    This is why we grow our produce in our backyard.

  • Reply
    February 7, 2020 at 1:05 pm

    Great post, Sue! I once opened a bag of spring greens mix to find a “glob” of something strange. My husband who was in environmental health all his life had a connection with the CDC. They asked to have the glob sent to them and couldn’t really identify it! From then on I won’t buy bagged lettuce. We practice what you preach and when summer comes, we grow our own! Thanks for a very educational post that everyone should read!

    • Reply
      February 7, 2020 at 1:32 pm

      Oh my gosh, that’s nightmarish! In my research I read about a woman who found a live frog in her bag of greens 🙂

  • Reply
    Vicki Bensinger
    February 7, 2020 at 9:03 am

    Great info Sue. From one who has gotten violently ill twice from eating salad greens out I noticed one thing specifically. DO NOT EAT the lettuce if you see that black gush on any of them. Send the salad back. That’s a true sign it’s bad even if in boxes you bring home.
    Trust me when I say I was violently ill I was so sick. Coming back from a trip the airline checkin made me a bed behind their counter and brought me ginger tea while our flight was delayed 2 hours.
    The other time it was coming out of both ends at the same time. Sorry to be so graphic but it was brutal.
    Play it safe and send your green back or just don’t eat. It’s not worth it.

    • Reply
      February 7, 2020 at 9:06 am

      I have a sensitive stomach and I get food poisoning easily so I know what you mean Vicki. Any sign of wilting, yellowness, (or of course black!) is a definite signal to pass any greens by.

  • Reply
    February 7, 2020 at 8:46 am

    Thanks for all of this great info. I’m fortunate to grow leaf lettuces in my small home garden. I do, however, still buy lettuce at the grocery store both bagged and heads and think about the possibility of contaminated lettuce.
    Thanks too, for all your great tips, tricks and of course, your fantastic recipes!

    • Reply
      February 7, 2020 at 9:00 am

      Thanks Lorie, I really appreciate your support 🙂

  • Reply
    February 7, 2020 at 8:32 am

    I love fresh salads and don’t want to give them up. If there is a recall on romaine, I stop until it’s lifted. I always wash my greens well. I don’t order salads in restaurants often because I’m afraid they might not wash their greens. I’m going to continue enjoying a good hearty salad.
    Thank you for the informative post.

    • Reply
      February 7, 2020 at 8:44 am

      One of my big changes is that I don’t do salad bars anymore. I used to love them, but can’t trust them these days.

  • Reply
    Katherine Burns
    February 7, 2020 at 8:23 am

    Sue, Grow your own leaf lettuce. Mesclun seeds are less than $3 a pack. An earth box or other long box works fine. Pinch off what you’ll use and let them keep growing! PS. I live in a condo and my delicious fresh lettuce grows on my balcony.

  • Reply
    February 7, 2020 at 8:22 am

    Hi Sue, Thanks for the great article! Do you think that maybe iceberg lettuce is safer than romaine? Linda

    • Reply
      February 7, 2020 at 8:48 am

      Yes and no. Iceberg hasn’t been implicated in as many serious disease outbreaks, but it’s susceptible to being contaminated just like any lettuce. Plus, it’s not nutritionally very good for us, so I always pass it up, unless of course I’m making an old fashioned wedge salad 😉

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