The Lazy Man's Leafy Greens

In the beginning there was iceberg, generally a large wedge of it, swathed in pink or orange dressing. Even today, when many supermarkets carry snazzier lettuces, iceberg rules: it's the No. 1 lettuce in the land. (In fact, it's the No. 2 vegetable in the land, after potatoes, though iceberg has so few nutrients the term vegetable is largely a courtesy.) But iceberg's strangle hold on the market may be loosening, thanks to the biggest innovation at the produce counter since misting: packaged salads. Retail sales of these prewashed greens have been growing by about 95 percent a year since 1992, reaching $600 million last year -and that was before any of the salads had taco chips in them.

Ideal for the truly lazy, this trend started in 1989, when TKO Farms of Salinas, Calif., began packaging organic-lettuce mixtures. Some of TKO's salads contain up to 18 different lettuces, and Todd Koons, president of the company, recites them lovingly: "lollo rossa, red oak, the red romaines, plus mizuna, tatsoi, there's a whole world of spinaches out there, and we mix little, red chards, beet tops, frisee. . ." But as larger growers and processors picked up the idea, more conventional salads started appearing. Today many include at least a few exotics, but there's a lot of iceberg in those bags, even ones labeled EUROPEAN mix. "It's Euro-trash," says Koons.

The leader in the field is Fresh Express Farms in Salinas, which markets more than a dozen varieties of salad priced at about $1.50 to $2.99 per package, including several salad "kits" complete with dressing, croutons, bacon bits and other add-ons. "We're not sensing price resistance," says Steve Taylor, chairman and CEO of Fresh Express. "They're pretty good-size portions. Our Caesar would provide four small salads, or throw some chicken on it and you've got dinner for two."

Precut salads--and their new siblings, precut vegetables--are sold in special plastic bags that help regulate the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide according to the specific needs of each product. Ordinary plastic wrap keeps cut produce nutritious and good-looking for a day or two; the bags give products a shelf life of nearly two weeks. According to Margaret Barth, a food scientist at the University of Kentucky, if precut produce is handled properly it can retain vitamins even better than whole produce. "Whole produce on a display counter gets dehydrated, and nutrients are lost," she says. "The modified atmosphere in the bags gives the cut produce extra advantages."

But proper handling is not yet the rule. Some supermarkets store the bags at room temperature, or display them on a regular produce counter without special cooling. "I tell retailers this is like ice cream," says Edith Garrett. president of the International Fresh Cut Produce Association, a trade group. "It has to be held at 40 degrees or below." After a couple of days at room temperature, the risk of food poisoning increases. "The potential is there," says Joe Madden. an FDA micro-biologist. "Bacteria can reproduce between 40 and 140 degrees we call that the danger zone." In general, if produce is wilting or discolored, better avoid it--but that can be a hard call to make through plastic. Fresh Express won't release some of its new items--including mixtures with meat and precut fruit--until more supermarkets invest in refrigerated produce units. But temperature isn't the only thing that needs fine-tuning with these product. The veggie-only mixtures are good when they're fresh, and TKO's are excellent, but the dressings and sauces are appalling. Meanwhile, companies continue to introduce new combos as fast as they can dream them up. Just out is Awesome Greens, a salad mix for kids that comes with iceberg, croutons, creamy dressing--and a toy. If the kids don't like it, give 'em Cracker Jacks.