Food Poisoning: How it Affects Your Leafy Greens
Most people know that to avoid food poisoning you must refrigerate meat or wash your hands after cracking an egg. However, it may come as a surprise that the leading cause of food poisoning is, in fact, leafy green vegetables.
Each year, approximately 48 million people in the U.S. contract some form of food-borne illness. A 2013 publication from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 20% of all such illnesses were directly attributable to leafy greens. These figures can be frightening, considering that vegetables are often thought of as a healthy choice.
It is important to note, though, that not all greens are grown in the same way. FreshBox Farms cultivates its products in a controlled, sanitary environment, which allows us to eliminate several of the root causes of food poisoning that are found in other leafy vegetables. Let us explain how.
What is food poisoning?
Food poisoning is a sickness caused by eating food contaminated by a virus, bacteria, or parasite. There are over 250 types of food-borne illnesses that are associated with various pathogens. Illness can begin within hours of eating contaminated food, or have an incubation period as long as several days. Most people only experience mild symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, but the condition can be dangerous, even potentially deadly.
The American public has been acquainted with the importance of food sanitation since as far back as the early 1900s, when Upton Sinclair published his exposé, The Jungle, on the meat packing industry. From restaurant outbreaks of E. coli to large product recalls in grocery stores, producers, consumers, and the government are all more concerned than ever about the safety of our food.
In 1993, 732 people were infected with E. coli from undercooked hamburger meat at Jack in the Box restaurants across the country. Four children died and 178 others were left with permanent health issues. As a result of press coverage and public outrage, the meat and restaurant industries were forced to re-examine their practices. The FDA and USDA imposed stricter food safety standards, which included labeling raw meat and identifying E. coli as an adulterant (a foreign substance found within another that is not naturally occurring). Since then, people have become more aware of the dangers of consuming undercooked meat, but they often don’t think twice about their produce.
In 2003, contaminated scallions at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Pennsylvania led to a massive outbreak of hepatitis A, a virus usually spread by infected feces. Three people died due to liver failure and over 650 associated cases of the virus were confirmed across four states. While this was an extreme event, it is by no means an isolated incident. Greens are susceptible to such contamination during the growing process because of their close proximity to soil, water, manure, and animals; they can also become exposed to contaminants during harvesting, packaging, and transporting.
Why does food poisoning occur?
Traditionally, many greens grow low to the ground, and can be subjected to contamination when leaves brush against soil. The leaves of these vegetables have a complex structure, which makes it easy for dirt and other food safety hazards to hide during cleaning. Greens may be washed at the farms — usually with a solution of water and bleach — before being packaged for the store, but because of the intricate structure of the plants, it is difficult to disinfect and remove all of the lingering bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Any pathogens that remain after washing can continue to grow and spread to other leaves, surfaces at the packaging facility, produce in the grocery store, and eventually, other items in your fridge. The allure of the “triple washed” sticker on packaging can be misleading for this reason.
The authors of a 2015 study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology collected samples from three plots of leafy greens that were planted at varying distances from cattle feedlots. Samples were collected six times over the course of the growing season from each plot, and E. coli bacteria was found present in each sample from each location, the furthest plot being 180 meters (about 590 feet) from the feedlot. In California, a planting distance of 120 meters (about 395 feet) is recommended, but, even that distance proved insufficient for the production of clean vegetables. Therefore, although regulations and practices may be in place to prevent such contamination, pathogens are persistent and even greens that advertise that there’s no need to re-wash might still be at risk for carrying the causes of food-borne illness.
What can I do to prevent food poisoning from Leafy Greens?
There are some steps that you can take to stave off food poisoning.
For instance, be sure to store vegetables in your fridge away from meat and poultry to prevent leaked juices from getting onto clean food. Wash your hands, knives and food prep surfaces often. If applicable, remove the outer leaves of your produce to reduce contaminants that may be lingering on the surface. Also, while shopping, pick up your produce last so that it stays cool in the refrigerated section for as long as possible.
It is necessary to recognize, however, that it is impossible to rinse away all of the pathogens present on unsanitary produce. The only way to actually eliminate the causes of food poisoning in contaminated leafy greens is through cooking at the appropriate temperatures — so keep that in mind the next time you want a crisp, cool salad on a summer day.
The Solution: Controlled Environment Agriculture
Don’t let this information discourage you from eating your greens! You are still more prone to get a cavity from eating junk food than you are to get food poisoning from a plate of veggie sticks. To reduce health risks even further, though, consider purchasing greens grown in a clean, controlled environment — such as those produced by FreshBox Farms!
FreshBox Farms grows its greens hydroponically in climate-controlled indoor farms. These leafy vegetables are the cleanest that you will find in stores, as they have been cultivated without any soil and with no contamination from pathogen sources like manure or animals. Even vegetables that are labeled as “Organic” are often still grown in the ground, and are therefore susceptible to whatever contaminants may be present in the dirt.
Our greens are cared for in a sanitary environment that keeps pathogens at bay, and in which there is no need to apply harmful chemicals like pesticides or herbicides. Additionally, once the plants are ready to be eaten, they are harvested and handled using only the best possible practices to maintain cleanliness. Our products are then transported directly to the retailer within 24 hours of harvest to ensure that the customer gets the freshest greens available.