Consumer Reports reveals major national retailers are selling greens that may be contaminated with listeria monocytogenes. Leafy green vegetables sold at Whole Foods, Acme, Costco, and Hannaford have tested positive for the foodborne bacteria. As a result, food safety officials are weighing in on what supermarkets can do to prevent bacterial contamination.
Study Finds Listeria in Leafy Greens
Prompted by the perennial concerns over romaine lettuce and spinach, Consumer Reports conducted a study of 284 samples of various greens. The study includes kale, spinach, lettuce, and various other greens. Of those, six samples tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.
Two of the positive samples are spinach and an organic spinach-spring mix available in pre-washed packaging. The other four samples are loose bunches or heads of red leaf lettuce, green leaf lettuce, kale, and spinach.
Consumer Reports researchers purchased all the greens in the study in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. The products were purchased June 3-19, 2019. Though the study found listeria, thankfully, researchers did not find any other bacteria, such as E. coli or Salmonella, in the food samples.
The discovery of any foodborne pathogen on foods usually consumed raw presents a threat to consumers. Above all, the only sure way to prevent foodborne illness caused by listeria is to cook food to an internal temperature of 165° Fahrenheit (F). Foods that will not be cooked prior to consumption can easily make consumers sick.
Where Did the Contamination Come From?
Listeria is a bacteria found naturally in soil and water. It thrives even at refrigerated temperatures below 40° F. For leafy greens, moisture is the most likely cause of the contamination. Consumers should not wash leafy greens like kale until it is ready to eat. Pre-washing often leads to wilting, which encourages bacterial or mold growth.
If you regularly buy leafy greens, store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator with a paper towel to absorb any excess moisture. This can help prevent the spread of disease.
Should Consumers be Concerned?
Amazingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told USA Today that they are not concerned about the results of the Consumer Reports study. A spokesperson from the agency reminded the public that most healthy adults will not get sick from exposure to listeria.
That said, there are vulnerable populations for whom listeria contamination can be serious. These groups include:
- Pregnant women
- Elderly adults
- Children under five
- People with compromised immune systems
Consumers should continue to purchase and eat leafy greens for their outstanding nutritional value. However, vulnerable populations may be well served by avoiding raw greens altogether and getting their vitamins elsewhere. About 1,600 people report listeria infection (listeriosis) each year. Around 260 of those individuals die because of the pathogen.
A sample size of 284 is not statistically significant enough to paint a picture of the danger of contaminated greens available in grocery stores across America. What the study does reveal is that a random retail sample can indicate contamination. Consequently, there is probably more the food industry can do to improve the safety of leafy green vegetables for consumers.
Is Listeria Making People Sick?
Of the six samples positive for Listeria monocytogenes, one sample contained a strain of the bacteria genetically linked to at least two cases of listeria-related illness reported to the CDC. The product with that particular strain of listeria was Nature’s Place Organic Spinach Spring Mix purchased at a Hannaford supermarket. The mix comes with a label that says “triple-washed.”
A spokesperson for Hannaford said that the grocery store chain has not received any reports of illness associated with that specific product. Other products contaminated with listeria were purchased at:
- Acme – Unbranded, loose bunches of red leaf lettuce
- Costco – Boskovich Farms brand bagged spinach, also marked “triple washed”
- Hannaford – Unbranded, loose bunches of spinach
- Whole Foods – Lancaster Farm brand loose bunches of green kale and unbranded, loose bunches of green leaf lettuce
Potentially contaminated greens sharing production dates and a packaging location with the samples in the study are likely no longer on store shelves. However, to be safe, sanitize your crisper drawer or refrigerator shelves if you purchased leafy greens in the month of June. Listeria can live for a long time in a refrigerator. Thorough cleaning is essential to shutting down the threat of cross-contamination.
The Ensuing FDA Investigation
Consumer Reports shared their findings with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The company also alerted the retailers and marketing companies from where they purchased the greens. The FDA inspected the facility that produced Nature’s Place Organic Spinach Spring Mix, which was the product containing the strain of listeria linked to two illnesses.
The FDA has a zero tolerance policy for Listeria monocytogenes. If an FDA inspection finds the bacteria, or if the manufacturer finds it during routine testing, the agency takes immediate action. Often, that action includes a recall of the product. Initial testing from the FDA did not find any more listeria, according to a spokesperson from Hannaford. The agency will also be completing follow-up testing.
Boskovich Farms, the producer of the sample of bagged spinach said they had not received any reports of illness in connection with the product. In fact, all the retailers contacted by Consumer Reports denied any reports of illness in association with their greens.
Be Listeria Alert
For consumers, the best thing you can do is be alert and aware about listeria and the possible risks. Washing raw vegetables may not remove all contaminants. Bacteria can stick and hide in tiny crevices, even if scrubbed with a brush. For the most vulnerable among us, eating cooked greens is a safer choice because cooking kills bacteria. For healthy adults, good sanitation practices and diligent refrigeration should avoid the majority of listeria-related illnesses.
Are you or a family member ill as a result of leafy greens or another food product? Talk to Bad Food Recall to learn more about your legal rights as a consumer. You may be able to hold the producer or distributor of contaminated food products responsible for your illness and any resulting medical expenses. Call 1-877-534-5750 or contact Bad Food Recall online to learn more.