Since You Asked: It's best to buy whole greens

Every time I pass the bags of baby spinach at the grocery store, I'm reminded of the E. coli outbreak a couple of years ago. Am I being paranoid about avoiding this product? Is there anything I can do at home to protect myself against eating contaminated greens?

— Nancy C., Ashland

No, you're not paranoid. A recent study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fingered produce as the United States' leading cause of food poisoning, accounting for nearly half of all cases.

While items like melons with their grooved exteriors, provide places for bacteria to lodge, the CDC says leafy greens like lettuce and spinach were the worst culprits for food poisoning between 1998 and 2008.

Greens marketed as "washed and ready to eat" or "triple-washed," in fact harbored bacteria that commonly indicate poor sanitation and fecal contamination. In 39 percent of samples tested in 2010 by the publishers of Consumer Reports, these greens also exceeded acceptable limits on total coliform. The study concluded that consumers should wash all bagged or boxed lettuce and greens.

Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, warns against buying bagged greens. Instead, purchase whole heads of lettuce or greens, remove the outer-surface layers where bacteria are most likely to be present, then wash the greens under cold, running water.

Doyle has conducted studies, according to a story by McClatchy New Service, that show cutting and bagging lettuce in processing plants actually can trap bacteria inside leaves, meaning no amount of scrubbing or washing will rid them of germs. At that point, only cooking can render the greens safe to eat.

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