The technology of bagged salad

January 21, 2003 in Food Companies, Manufacturing and Trends

The technology of bagged salad

If you've ever enjoyed the ease of salad preparation afforded by the salad in a bag invention - it may seem like a simple thing. But there is a reason that bagged lettuce costs more than twice as much as a head of iceberg lettuce.

It is not easy getting those perfectly formed leaves, washed and still fresh, from the soil to your table. The process requires speed, technology, secrecy about that technology and plain old farmers' ingenuity.

Bagged salad sales in the United States have soared in the past decade, exceeding $2 billion last year, according to AC Nielsen. And while iceberg is still very popular, accounting for 73 percent of all lettuce grown in the U.S., that is a decline from 84 percent in 1992. Romaine and leaf lettuces like green leaf and red oak have seen sales more than doubled since the early 1990's.

But whatever mix the bag holds, speed is of the essence. The moment the plants are shaved from the ground, the clock starts ticking. Six days is allowed for washing and bagging the lettuce and transporting it around the country, and about a week more to sell it. After that, the leaves turn slimy - and that is disastrous for sales.

Bins of freshly cut leaves are rushed from nearby farms to the packing plant in refrigerated trucks. Then the bins are lifted into a vacuum tube the diameter of a subway tunnel. In 20 minutes, the vacuum brings the temperature of the lettuce down to 36 degrees, and it goes into cold storage.

Inside the packing plant, enormous production lines ferry the tiny greens from bin to bag. First, they are upended onto conveyors, passing a row of inspectors and sweeping down a flume into the world's largest salad spinners. Then up conveyors they go, to giant scales and bagging machines. More than 14,000 pounds of lettuce can be processed every hour.

That's a lot of lettuce!

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