Lettuce not forsake cleanliness for convenience
What a great idea: a luscious green salad, ready to eat without all the washing and slicing and chopping. However, when Ha'aretz tested six of these prepared green salads in the lab, none of them met the standards for hygiene.
The lazier, busier or more self-indulgent the Israeli consumer becomes, the greater the selection of instant foods on our supermarket shelves. First came the frozen meals and then the dehydrated, add boiling water and serve single-portion meals, and now there's washed and peeled mixed salad vegetables, either sliced or shredded.
They are very convenient and easy to use and can go straight from the plastic bag to your plate. "Just add salad dressing and seasonings," say the instructions on one packet, and eat.
Of course, the cost of these salads equals the level of indulgence, and the bags of prepared salads that Ha'aretz bought cost between NIS 7.50 and NIS 10.90 for quantities that varied between 150 grams and 400 grams. For the sake of comparison, a whole head of lettuce costs NIS 2-5 and a kilogram of cabbage NIS 2-4.
Consumers who are willing to pay more for washed, cut salad vegetables will do so only if they believe wholeheartedly that the vegetables are fresh and have been meticulously washed and checked for quality and cleanliness, as stated on the packages.
Ha'aretz sent six packets of mixed vegetables from various manufacturers to be checked by the microbiology labs of the Israel Standards Institute (ISI), to see just how clean they were.
The six packets were bought at different stores and two samples were taken from each - close to the date on which they appeared on supermarket shelves and a few days later (and all the salads were purchased before the last date for sale stamped on the packages). Each salad was also purchased from two different supermarkets on different dates. The salads were transported refrigerated and brought to the lab within a short time of being purchased.
The following salads were purchased: Three-lettuce salad (containing romaine, iceberg and red lettuce, made by Super Class-Gidron); Leket Gina Li (containing tomatoes, cabbage and lettuce, made by ANP Fresh Vegetables Ltd); Salat Yarok min Hateva (containing lettuce, cabbage, onion and tomatoes, made by Bikurei Katif Ta'asiyot); Baby Salad (containing beet leaves, mizona [an Asian green] and arugula, made by Fresco Hatzeva); Israeli Salad (containing lettuce, cabbage and carrot, made by Gina Li-Select); and Swiss Salad (containing red and white cabbage and carrots, made by Super Class-Gidron).
The microbiological tests were done according to two standards, one of which was Israeli standard IS1254, which applies to vegetable salads intended for retail sale, which are refrigerated with or without preservatives.
Since this standard is not completely suited to the types of salads in question because they contain no preservatives whatsoever, the salads were also tested according to the new suggested standard IS2202, which has already been approved by the ISI's technical committee and will become valid within a few weeks. The proposed standard concerns salads such as those checked - cut, refrigerated vegetables without preservatives.
Either way, the results of the tests were dismal. Not one of the salads met the existing standard and only two of the 12 met the proposed standard, which is more lenient than the existing one.
The salads that passed the tests were the second sample of the Israeli Salad and the second sample of the Yarok min Hateva salad.
The tests clearly illustrate that the washing, disinfecting or storing procedures are not sufficient and that the vegetables that ultimately reach your plate are not clean. It is also worth noting that the tests conducted on the salads purchased closer to the day they arrived in the supermarkets yielded better results.
The salads had high levels of coliform bacteria and high general bacteria counts. Although this is a common occurrence in fresh vegetables, it should not be the case with ones that are sold "washed and disinfected."
Dan Bar-El, who heads the microbiology department at the ISI, says the findings attest to the fact that the products were not disinfected as promised or were not stored under proper refrigeration conditions. Some of the salads had large quantities of mold spores, which are liable to cause gastroenteritis and to contain dangerous toxins. High mold levels indicate that the salads were not prepared in sufficiently clean surroundings, or that there was a high level of moisture caused by insufficient drying of the vegetables after they were washed.
The high general bacteria counts indicate that the products were beginning to rot and would not reach the end of their shelf life in an edible state. Even so, Bar-El notes that none of the samples contained any of the types of pathogens that lead to food poisoning.
"The unsatisfactory results in both samples of all the salads," says Bar-El, "indicates that the problem is not only one of early rotting of the product on the shelves, but also that the products are not completely clean when they are new." Even so, there were more coliforms in the salads close to the end of their shelf life than when they were fresh.
The growers claim this is the fault of the packaging companies. Even with proper cleaning procedures, they say, inadequate refrigeration conditions will lead to the multiplication of bacteria.
Dr. Brian Coussin, who heads the national food services department at the Health Ministry, concurs that the problem probably lies with the temperature at which the products are stored, and not with improper cleaning. Even so, he notes that the lab results do not indicate any health hazard.
Below are the responses of the manufacturers and supermarkets:
The spokesperson for Supersol, which markets Three Lettuce Salad, Baby Salad and Swiss Salad, said, "The tests were based on IS1254, which concerns Middle-Eastern style salads and is not suitable for the products that were sampled. The products that you tested should have been tested under procedures 08-001 of the National Food Services, which would indicate that they are fine."
Bar-El retorted that the food services procedures are in addition to the standard and "its requirements of the final product should meet all the standards and regulations that apply to the product."
Yael Leventhal Lev-Ran, spokesperson for the Blue Square chain, said regarding the Israeli Salad and Leket Gina Li, "In the absence of a binding standard, the factory works in accordance with European standards. The factories in Europe have been in this business for many years, unlike the Israeli ones, which have been making such products for only a few years. No pathogens were found in any of the samples. It is noteworthy that one of the salads actually met the standards. When the Israeli standard for cut vegetables is approved, we will be happy to adopt it and to operate according to it."
Leventhal Lev-Ran added that the lab at which the tests were done is not authorized by the Health Ministry, although Vered Oren, the ISI's spokesperson, says that it is "in the process of being approved by the Health Ministry, a process that should be completed shortly."
Clubmarket, which markets Salat Yarok min Hateva, gave this response: "We are satisfied with the tests that proved that our products are of good quality. With respect to the product that did not pass the test, we are checking the matter with the supplier in the hope that he too will join our line of excellent products."
Micha Tayar, CEO of Bikurei Katif Ta'asiyot, which makes Salat Yarok min Hateva, said, "The packing plant is under the strictest kashrut supervision, so the vegetables that arrive from regular growers are being supervised by agronomists. The vegetables are rinsed and disinfected with substances that are approved by the Health Ministry. The factory is under the supervision of three labs. The results of the first test, one day after the salad arrived at the supermarket, show the extent of the cleanliness and hygiene. I have no explanation for the results of the second test, which were done a week after the salads arrived in the store. Since the procedures at the packing plant are regulated, and in light of the good results from the first sample, it seems that the problem is not with the level of hygiene at the plant but rather with the storage [conditions]."
Fresco Hatzeva, which makes Baby Salad, said that its packing plant exports fresh herbs to countries all over Europe according to the international standard. "Random samples are taken from us for testing," said Fresco's spokesperson, "and so far we have never had any complaints, not in Israel and not from abroad. Various factors in the refrigeration process can cause an increase in the bacteria count. We are astonished that you did not examine the whole process from start to finish. The gap between the good test results at the factory and the results of your tests are also difficult to explain."