Imagine chopping up a delicious salad for lunch full of good-for-you leafy greens and crowned with raw veggies like tomatoes and shredded carrots. So healthy, right? You’re feeling good and patting yourself on the back about your food choices. But what if we told you your healthy lunch has the potential to contain actual animal feces which can cause foodborne illness? That salad is probably looking less appealing and more like a high-risk choice.
“The primary way you will get sick from your food today is from your salad, leafy greens, and any fruits and vegetables that you eat raw and uncooked,” said Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group’s senior vice president of government affairs. “The primary way pathogens get into these foods is through the 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?
The process of contamination
While you can get foodborne illnesses from contaminated animal protein like chicken and beef, eggs, milk, and cheese, raw produce is the culprit nearly 50% of the time. According to the CDC, leafy greens like romaine lettuce and spinach are often the highest offenders among raw veggies out there and are a major source of E. coli contamination. Seems like headlines have been rife with recalls on various batches of spinach or romaine over the past few years.
“It used to be you could wash your veggies three times and get [pathogens] off, but now it’s growing into the roots from the water below,” said Jaydee Hanson, policy director for the Center for Food Safety. Though extreme, he said he feels as though he should warn people to “cook their lettuce” before they eat it.
And don’t miss One in Four People Contaminate Their Food When Cooking With This Ingredient, New Study Shows.
The poop loophole
When you have a produce farm next to an animal farm (chickens, cows, pigs, etc.), there’s a lot more poop around, which raises the risk of contaminated irrigation water. And, if you’re thinking that farmers using manure to fertilize plants means poop on produce can’t be that big a deal, think again.
According to Brian Ronholm, director of food policy for Consumer Reports, who used to work for the Department of Agriculture under the Obama Administration, the process of composting manure involves applying heat, which kills a lot of the pathogens.
The testing issue
And thankfully, there are restrictions, such as raw manure cannot be used as fertilizer within 120 days of harvest. “The problem … is raw manure flows from nearby feedlots and either ends up directly on the field, or the pathogens end up in the ag [agricultural] water and get applied directly on the field.”
More than a decade ago, Congress passed the Food Safety Moderation Act to help protect Americans from foodborne illnesses. The FDA has worked to implement all of the regulations stipulated by law. However, one area that hasn’t been fully addressed 11 years later is the safety of ag water used for produce. The agency proposed some 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 can be in the irrigation water and sprayed on your lunch,” Faber said. “After coming under extraordinary pressure from farmers, now it’s completely left up to the farmers how much poop can go on your lunch.”
The problem has to do with testing. Findings published via a month-long investigation by Politico revealed that if a farmer uses a microbial test on a morning-water sample and it comes out clean, that doesn’t mean an evening or next-day sample of that same water will also be clean because agricultural water is constantly changing.
There are environmental factors to consider. Ronholm said birds, wild animals, wind, and more can also increase the levels of contaminated feces in the produce fields.
“We’re finding that the testing levels are not correlated to how safe the water is,” said Dr. James Kincheloe, food safety campaign manager for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).