Beware the Leafy Greens

A Leafy Greens | Photo: rankingfuuta/Flickr/Creative Commons License

So you're doing the "good thing" for dinner. Instead of plowing through a medium-rare factory-farmed piece of cheap steak, or ordering up a pizza from down the block and stuffing your face with it, you decide to do your body good. You get some fresh vegetables from your produce provider of choice -- tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, a few carrots, what-not -- throw them into a bowl, mix 'em around, add just the minimal amount of salad dressing, and you have yourself a nice dinner salad.

Things go great for a few hours after, but then you start to feel something ... wrong. A problematic ache in your stomach, maybe a cold sweat, and suddenly you're down for a few days with a terrible bit of foodborne illness. Aren't you glad you decided to go healthy?

This scenario is actually a lot more common than you'd think. According to a new report dropped by the CDC, all of those leafy greens in your salads or smoothies or nestled-in-your-sandwiches-to-trick-you-into-thinking-you're-being-health-conscious are actually among the most dangerous items of food we eat. In the CDC's study, they looked at the stats of which foods begat sickness, hospitalizations and death from 1998 to 2008. Of the 4,600 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses that the CDC tracked, researchers found that 46% of those cases could be attributed to produce.

Yikes.

(To give you a bit of comparison, a recent study of food contamination over the past decade in China, which has not had the greatest track record when it comes to foodborne illnesses, found that plant-based food led to only 20.5% of illnesses. Meats, on the other hand, led to 52.2% of the illnesses there.)

The report goes on to say that the viral cause of these veggie-produced illnesses is the notorious norovirus, which signifies that the produce is being washed in water that has been contaminated by "fecal matter." Now, this doesn't mean the produce workers are simply failing to understand which room is the bathroom and which room is storing the lettuce. It's more about a labyrinthian combination of poor plumbing, unchecked fertilizers and manure being used, or simple lack of worker hygiene. Which is why the FDA recently proposed stricter standards for handling produce:

The FDA proposal will require strict standards for growing, harvesting, packing and holding fruits and vegetables as well as increase sanitation for irrigating fields and washing produce and strengthen rules for maintaining worker hygiene. It will also increase surveillance for materials used in soils like fertilizers and manure, provide better management of animals that enter crop fields, and improve cleanliness of processing equipment.

That said, all of this of course doesn't mean you should steer clear from fruits and vegetables. The CDC also found the largest food group responsible for death is, as you'd imagine, contaminated meat. Thinking of it that way, it's more just like the leafy greens are beating you up and stealing your wallet rather than mass murdering.

(While two of the three highest death tolls from foodborne illnesses have been due to produce, as David Katz pointed out in Huffington Post a few years ago, it's wrong to blame foodborne illnesses only on growing veggies when the mass production of meat leads to this contamination.)

So, what do we do with this information? As usual, it comes down to voting with your dollar. Head to the local farmers' market, learn who's creating and plucking your produce, ask what type of fertilizer they're using, dig into them for information. And while you're doing so, get a feel for how they're treating their workers. At the very least, make sure they have actual working toilets to use. Ultimately, caring about farm workers isn't just about altruistically doing what's right. It can also be about making sure we all don't get sick.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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