Imagine chopping up a delicious midday salad plenty of good-for-you leafy greens and topped off with raw veggies like grated tomatoes and carrots. So healthy, right? You feel good and are happy with your food choices. But what if we told you that your healthy lunch has the potential to contain real animal feces that can cause foodborne illness? This salad probably looks less appealing and more like a high-risk choice.
“The main way to get sick of your food today comes from your salad, your leafy greens and all the fruits and vegetables you eat raw and uncooked,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Task Force. “The main route by which pathogens enter these foods is through irrigation water [used on farms] which is filled with animal feces.”
That’s right, animal feces. Poop. So what are the chances that your lunch contains poop particles?
First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in six Americans (about 48 million people) contract a foodborne illness each year. Foodborne illness (or food poisoning) occurs because dangerous and sometimes deadly strains of bacteria such as E. coli, Listeria, Salmonella and others hide in certain foods. Of estimated number of people who get sick each year, 128,000 are hospitalized while 3,000 people die. And these are only approximate numbers.
Although you can get foodborne illnesses from contaminated animal protein like chicken and beef, eggs, milk and cheese, raw produce is the culprit. almost 50% of the time. According to CDC, leafy greens like romaine lettuce and spinach are often the most dangerous raw vegetables and are a major source of E. coli contamination. Looks like the headlines have been filled with remember on various batches of spinach or roman during the last years.
“Before, you could wash your vegetables three times and get [pathogens] extinct, but now it’s growing in roots from the water below,” said Center for Food Safety policy director Jaydee Hanson. this.
The contamination process
When you have a produce farm next to an animal farm (chickens, cows, pigs, etc.), there is a lot more poop around, which increases the risk of irrigation water contamination . And, if you think farmers using manure to fertilize plants means poo on produce can’t be that bad, think again.
According to Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports, who worked for the Department of Agriculture during the Obama administration, the process of composting manure involves the application of heat, which kills many pathogens.
And fortunately, there are restrictions, such as raw manure cannot be used as fertilizer within 120 days of harvest. “The problem … is that the raw manure runs off nearby feedlots and either ends up directly in the field or the pathogens end up in the agriculture [agricultural] water and apply directly to the ground.”
The Poo Escape
More than ten years ago, Congress passed the Food Safety Moderation Act to help protect Americans from foodborne illness. The FDA has endeavored to implement all regulations stipulated by law. However, one area that has not been fully addressed 11 years later is the security of agricultural water used for produce. The agency proposed standards in 2015, but many consumer and food safety advocates said they fell short.
“The FDA was supposed to set standards for how much poop could be in irrigation water and sprayed on your lunch,” Faber said. “After coming under extraordinary pressure from farmers, it’s now up to farmers to decide how much shit you can put in your lunch.”
The question of testing
The problem is related to testing. The results published via a one-month survey by Politics revealed that if a farmer uses a microbial test on a morning water sample and it comes out clean, that does not mean that an evening or next day sample of that same water will also be clean because agricultural water constantly changing.
There are environmental factors to consider. Ronholm said birds, wildlife, wind and more can also increase levels of contaminated faeces in production fields.
“We find that test levels do not correlate with water safety,” said Dr. James Kincheloe, food safety campaign manager for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Ronholm said another problem is that the FDA lacks jurisdiction to inspect animal feeding operations and check for pathogens. He thinks it is necessary to legislate to give the FDA the power to do these inspections.
The FDA proposed a new set of agricultural water guidelines in December 2021 under the Produce a security rule. According to an FDA spokesperson, the agency has since held two public meetings and several webinars to explain the proposal and seek feedback from stakeholders (the deadline for feedback ended in April).
“We are committed to working diligently to review the comments,” the spokesperson said. “The proposed rule is thorough and builds on scientific developments and lessons learned from recent product outbreak investigations (particularly with respect to issues arising from adjacent and neighboring lands). The agency believes that, if it is finalized, it will help bend the curve of foodborne illness and provide benefits for generations to come.”
Some feel that the new guidelines are still too flexible. “Consumers don’t always have the best food safety practices in their kitchen. I go into this thinking they don’t, so I want to make sure any food that comes into their kitchen is safe,” Kincheloe said of why he and others are fighting to strict guidelines. In his opinion, “the guidelines must say that these are the standards that everyone should follow”.
How to protect yourself
First, don’t panic. While eating leafy greens has tremendous health benefits. Although there are cases of foodborne illness resulting from contaminated products, this is by no means an epidemic.
Until stricter guidelines are implemented, however, there are some things you can do to protect yourself.
- Practice safe food handling and preparation. The FDA suggests washing hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw foods.
- Weigh the risks and identify the riskiest. Ronholm said romaine lettuce tends to be the riskiest of the leafy greens simply because its bumpy texture makes it easier for pathogens to latch onto it. This doesn’t mean you should avoid romaine, just be sure to wash it well before eating it.
- Ask your local farmers. PIRG food and agriculture advocate Danielle Melgar said local farmers know if they are near livestock operations and feedlots. So if you’re at a farmer’s market, don’t hesitate to ask growers about their growing conditions and choose accordingly.
- Consider indoor growers. “In traditional agriculture, water is generally not tested before it is used to irrigate crops, which means it could contain contaminants, such as pesticides or animal manure, from outside sources. and pose a threat to public health,” said Christopher Livingston, general counsel for Bowery Farming. indicated in a recently published report. “Indoor growers, like Bowery, typically use filtered municipal water, then further ensure cleanliness by regularly testing their irrigation water for contaminants and using reverse osmosis to further clean the water. “
- Grow your own food on a balcony or roof, in your garden or in a community garden. Melgar said to know that if you grow your own food, be aware of other contaminants like lead in the pipes in your building that carry water to the garden hose. “It’s a balance,” she said.
- Wash leafy greens even when they have been “pre-washed”. Brian referred to a consumer reports study in which they determined that there was no difference in bacteria levels between whole head and triple-washed packaged romaine lettuce. According to the CDC“The best way to wash leafy greens is to rinse them under running water. Studies show that this step removes some of the germs and dirt on leafy greens and other vegetables and fruits. But none washing method cannot eliminate all germs.”