Why salad is now one of the most dangerous dishes on the menu

Twisted: Unserious food tastes seriously good.

Anyone afraid of food poisoning usually thinks they’re on pretty safe ground with a vegetable. Unlike chicken or pork, which come with their own armies of illness-inducing nasties, leafy greens look as innocent as a newborn baby. But, as anyone who’s had to put up with sleepless nights, endless screaming and unstoppable pooping will agree, sometimes looks can be deceiving.

Leaves in a bowl Credit: Pixabay

Food news has been flooded recently with terrifying tales of hostile veggies. Some of the biggest brands in the industry have been affected, with thousands of pounds of produce recalled from shelves and kitchens for fear of what may be lurking between the leaves. McDonald’s, for instance, is currently dealing with a crisis caused by the cyclospora parasite, which is known to have given at least 400 people across 15 American states chronic fatigue and diarrhoea over the last few months. How the parasite, which is linked to human faeces, ended up in a McDonald’s kitchen remains a mystery.

But this is not just an American or even a fast food issue. Earlier this year in Europe, it was reported that half a dozen countries were affected by a listeria outbreak traced back to Hungarian corn. In Africa and Southeast Asia, it is known that several thousand people die every year as a result of diseases contracted from fresh vegetables. It’s becoming clear that just because you’ve pulled something out of the ground, you can’t assume it’s safe. Just what the hell is going on?

Depending on where you are in the world, there could be any number of problems affecting your veggies. In developing economies, many problems stem from washing leaves in contaminated water before eating them, aiding in the transfer of potentially dangerous parasites and germs. In many cases, unhygienic food preparation can also contribute to the spread of disease. These factors, coupled with a climate that allows a range of horrible bugs to grow and thrive, help to make vegetables just as dangerous as anything else on the menu.

But what about those countries in America and Europe where some of the really nasty diseases aren’t anywhere to be seen? How come their citizens are still suffering from salad poisoning?

As much as we might think that the modern food industry has become almost obsessively over-sanitised with drugs, pesticides and the like, the truth is that our approach has helped create some unforeseen complications. Take pre-packaged salad. On the surface, it seems like the height of convenience to have all your leaves already sliced and diced in a purpose-built plastic packet, ready to sprinkle into a bowl and munch immediately. What could be easier?

Unfortunately, we have all been lulled into a false sense of security. The reality is that bagging salad in a humid, wet environment makes a perfect breeding ground for bacteria such as salmonella and E coli. If one leaf gets infected through improper handling or accidental contact, the whole bag can quickly become compromised. Therefore, even if a salad comes advertised as “pre-washed”, we all still need to take extra care to prepare it properly. Unfortunately, both faith in “pre-washed” and our apparently irrepressible laziness has caused us to ignore some of the basic tenets of food hygiene.  

But it’s not just the environment of a pre-packaged salad that helps make them so dangerous. According to Bill Marler, one of America’s leading food safety attorneys, the multiple sources that feed into a bag can make it almost impossible to identify where a potential outbreak may have originated. In an interview with Vox, Marler said that, “When [salad] gets processed, you might have four to five farms supplying the processor on any day. So was it farmer one, two, three, or four that was contaminated?” This can make combating any potential problem seriously tricky.

We have seen this issue firsthand over the last few years. In mid-March, United States officials became aware of a major E. coli outbreak cause by Romaine lettuce. Unfortunately, with over 200 cases popping up all over the country, scientists found it almost impossible to track the source of the problem. Eventually, they identified the Yuma region of Arizona as ground zero, but were still unable to tell exactly where the bug was coming from. As a last resort, they were forced to ban lettuce exports from the entire area – a disaster for local farmers.

Though you might think that such prominent outbreaks are isolated incidents, research shows that the threat of salad poisoning is far more serious than we’d like to admit. According to the United States Center for Disease Control, every year, there are nearly 24 million cases of food poisoning that can be directly attributed to produce – that’s around half of all cases in the country. Meat and poultry, by contrast, accounts for a mere 22 per cent of cases. If we’re going to avoid coming a cropper, it’s becoming clear that we need to take salad seriously.

Generally speaking, salad often gets overlooked at the dinner table. Always the bridesmaid, it’s small wonder that we maybe don’t pay as much attention to our greens as we should. As we now know, this is a big mistake. Given how many of us are falling ill, maybe it’s time to start treating our leaves with a little more respect.