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Food safety expert reveals how you can tell if your salad is poisonous

The foodie landscape is a dangerous place. On every delicious corner lurks a bout of chronic food poisoning ready to pounce. In a world full of dodgy burritos and sometimes questionable seafood, even the most ardent food lover will often find themselves turning to the safety of the salad bar. Alas, even here there may be monsters.

Salad bar selection

The number one culprit for salad related illnesses is the tummy's arch nemesis: E. coli. A pathogen that causes chronic diarrhea and sometimes even death, E. coli is transmitted by contaminated water or food, or contact with animals or people. Last year, an outbreak in the US that led to the deaths of two people was traced back to a bad batch of romaine lettuce. Nowhere is safe.

Indeed, a potential digestive debacle is not limited to lettuce. Wild animals, wondering through farmers fields, can contaminate anything from strawberries to cabbages with their feces. Further along the food chain, contamination can be caused by anything from the water used to wash salad leaves to incorrect packaging at retail. The endless microbial assault is a terrifying prospect for germaphobes everywhere. Arm yourself with a can of bleach immediately.

Scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli

Spotting E. coli related outbreaks is far from straightforward. In many cases, it's not simply a question of recalling the contaminated produce, as incorrect identification can cost the industry millions of dollars. This was exactly what happened in the 1990s, where a pathogen outbreak was blamed on California strawberries, but could in fact be traced to Guatemala.

In any case, it can often be nigh on impossible to pin point the exact origin of a particular bug. This is particularly true if the product in question has been distributed to an extensive network, as was the case with the romaine incident. If zombie movies have taught me anything, it's that patient zero is always notoriously difficult to track down.

romaine lettuce field

Fortunately, all hope for germ free food is not yet gone. An expert has helped prepare a handy guide for avoiding dinner time disaster. Dr Jeffrey Farber, a professor of food safety at the University of Guelph, is leading the fightback against pernicious pathogens everywhere.

Farber has four simple rules for reducing consumer risk. First, produce should be purchased only from reputable retailers. Second, fruit and veg should always be kept separate from raw meat and poultry, both when shopping and during storage. Thirdly, make sure that you wash your hands well with hot, soapy water for at least 30 seconds prior to cooking.

handwashing with soapy water

The fourth rule is perhaps a little surprising. Farber suggests avoiding washing leafy greens altogether. This is, according to him, because washing can actually increase the risk of cross contamination. Though this might seem counter intuitive, it's worth remembering that he is, apparently, an expert.

Though it might be tricky to tell whether your dinner is home to a host of unpleasant diseases, following Farber's advice could help you spot when you could be at risk. If you haven't followed his advice, chances are you're at greater risk. Help yourself avoid an upset stomach, and don't wash those greens!