Two bags of salad greens currently sit in my refrigerator. One, grown and packaged by Earthbound Farms in California, comes from my local Safeway. The other, grown and packaged by Riverstone Organic Farm, was handed to me by the farmer who grew it, on the land where it was grown in Virginia.
The label on the Riverstone salad is relatively bare: There’s some contact information for the farm and some certification seals, but the main feature is the type of lettuce mix (Salanova), which is handwritten in Sharpie. The Earthbound salad label is a bit busier: There’s the company’s name and logo, the salad blend (herb), the net weight, a tracking number, and a tiny, italicized guarantee: “triple-washed.”
For years, the “triple-washed” label on bags and cartons of salad greens has confounded me. Why do I need to be told that these greens were washed three times? Should this be the linchpin of my purchase? I’ve always erred on the side of caution and fourth-washed at home, but I’ve never understood whether that was truly necessary, and the answers I found online were often contradictory.
So I decided to find out. What does “triple-washed” actually mean? And why do salad-green producers brag about washing their lettuce not twice, not four times, but three times in particular?
I initially took my questions to salad-green producers themselves. Of the few companies that responded, most were tight-lipped. “We don’t discuss our business practices,” I was told by the PR director of Trader Joe’s, as if I were a rival firm rather than a customer. “Unfortunately we won’t be able to participate with input for your article,” I was told by the communications director of Dole, as if talking about food were beyond the scope of Dole’s business interests.
Earthbound Farms and Ready Pac were less reserved, offering to take some of my questions and answering them through email, but these exchanges were chillingly mediated, routed through an opaque infrastructure of internal approvals. The answers I received seemed like they had been triple-washed themselves, scrubbed of any negative (or meaningful) content. “From planting to harvest, each stage is inspected and audited to ensure it meets our strict food safety standards,” Earthbound told me. “Ready Pac Foods has long been at the forefront of innovation in safety and quality,” I was told by Ready Pac. I knew when I set out to understand “triple-washed” that I was scratching at the surface of ad copy, but I didn’t expect to find more copy underneath.
This calculated posturing revealed something fundamental about triple-washing: The triple-washed label (and its less specific counterpart, “thoroughly washed”) is a hearty mix of fact and obfuscation. Triple washing is the endpoint of a long chain of risk management practices that are designed to ensure food safety. But, ironically, triple washing helps companies avoid being transparent about their food safety practices. “Triple washed” implies that everything you need to know about salad safety has to do with washing—when in fact it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and researcher at North Carolina State University, explained that triple washing is at least partially an aesthetic preparation. Triple washing is “not just a food safety step,” he said. “It’s a quality step as well.” The lettuce and other greens that go into our salads are grown in sprawling fields full of soil, rocks, sand, and dust. Because greens are eaten raw, any of these elements could potentially make it onto a plate. The triple-wash process greatly reduces the chance of this happening, removing “dirt, debris, anything you might find associated with the environment when you’re harvesting lettuce,” Chapman informs me. So one of the reasons salad producers love to tout the triple-washed process is that it really does help ensure the purity of greens.
But that doesn’t mean greens that have been cleaned of debris are necessarily free of dangerous microbes. Where the triple-washed label becomes dicey is at the level beyond visual perception. Triple-washed greens aren’t necessarily washed with water—in fact, they’re generally washed with sanitizers and other compounds that are intended to reduce pathogens, according to the food safety literature. But Chapman says these substances only tend to eliminate 90 to 99 percent of the microbes. “Only” may seem like a strange word choice for such a drastic decrease, but in microbiology, effectiveness is measured in log reductions, which are tenfold, meaning that each log reduction decreases bacteria to 10 percent of their initial number. A 90- to 99-percent decrease is only a one- to two-log reduction. Because pathogens can exist in superabundance, on a microbial level, a one- to two-log reduction means that there are still enough remaining pathogens to cause and spread illness.
And even a fourth or fifth wash would not reliably drive that number down, because some pathogens ensconce themselves inside the grooves of leaves like hermit crabs in shells, finding microscopic coves that are unreachable by liquids. Citing a 2007 paper published in Food Protection Trends, Chapman informs me that washing at home actually increases the risk of contamination because surfaces at home are likely crawling with germs. “I can’t do any better with the tools I have at my home than what the processor did. There’s no net risk reduction potential for me to wash. I am literally not doing anything by washing it at home,” he dryly reports. The only way to amp up that log reduction would be to apply heat, which will produce a supersafe five- to seven-log reduction but also ruin your salad.
So triple washing is a tortured compromise with an inconvenient reality: Salad greens aren’t particularly conducive to consumer safety. From its structural ability to harbor pathogens, to its inability to withstand heat, to its wide surface area, to the fact that it is processed in large volumes (increasing the risk of cross-contamination), commercial lettuce is as outbreak-ready as a 14th-century marmot.
What prevents frequent outbreaks (or rather what can prevent outbreaks) is the system of practices that begin long before the lettuce is washed thrice. There’s a sprawling matrix of voluntary audits, mandated inspections, legislation, certifications, research, services, and training available to ensure that salad is safe before it reaches a consumer or a wash basin. The practices that this matrix targets vary depending on the size of the farm and even the species of greens, but the general questions are straightforward. Are crops segregated from animal pins? Are compromised crops being discarded? Are workers wearing gloves? Are storage facilities regularly cleaned? Are wash waters coming from a safe source? These questions may seem basic, but asking them and acting on them can be the difference between life and death.
Although this matrix is not fail-safe, Chapman insists, it does have the potential to prevent outbreaks, but only when buyers (retailers and consumers alike) look at the practices underlying passed inspections and growers actually apply those practices on days other than inspection day.
Which brings us to Riverstone—the producer of the lettuce in my fridge that is not labeled “triple-washed.” When I visited Riverstone, openness was the guiding principle. Although the lettuce was only in the seedling stage, farm owner Woody Crenshaw gave me a full rundown of the salad production process and a tour of the processing facilities. Aside from the picturesque Appalachian hills, the experience was almost completely glamourless, just another day at a farm, cows and sheep lazily grazing, clouds dawdling overhead. There was a marked difference between this visit and the meticulous responses and declined interviews I received from the salad producers I usually patronize.
And it wasn’t just the fact that I was welcome. Throughout my conversation with Crenshaw, even as he talked about the difficulties of growing lettuce, which is a sensitive crop, there was just a sense that I deserved this information, that of course the food system should be questioned and investigated. When he handed me a bag of lettuce at the end of the interview, it didn’t feel like he was cultivating brand loyalty: It felt like he was feeding me.
Of course, my pleasant experience at Riverstone is far from a guarantee that the lettuce I brought home with me is safe. Confirming the safety of the farm would involve soil tests, water tests, product tests, visual inspections, experimental design—the whole nine. I’m not equipped to perform these checks for this bag of salad or any other salad I’ll eat, from Riverstone or elsewhere, but I do now have my own check.
The next time I pick up a bagged salad and scrutinize it under those harsh produce-aisle lights, I will know that the triple-washed label is a decent proxy for the character of the company I’m dealing with. If the greens are labeled triple-washed, there’s a good chance they were produced in a black box. If they’re not labeled triple-washed—and if the farm’s address is on the label—there’s a chance they came from a farm with some accountability. Given a choice between a supermarket bag of greens labeled “triple-washed” and a bag of greens from a farm that offers true transparency, like Riverstone, I’ll always choose the latter. I think I’ve finally figured out how to pick a good salad.