Adding greens to your diet is usually a really good thing. Full of vitamins and low in calories, leafy greens like spinach, kale, arugula, and romaine are a nutritional “must-do” according to every dietary expert you’ll ever meet. But lately, leafy greens have been suspect number one for many food recalls, as they’re one of the most common foods contaminated with listeria, E. coli, salmonella, and other dangerous pathogens. In 2019, there were a number of recalls of romaine, spinach, and salad kits that put the public on edge. To address that problem, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is implementing new processes in 2020 to improve the safety of leafy greens.
What Are Food Recalls and How Common Are They?
“A food recall is a voluntary action by a manufacturer or distributor to protect the public from products that may cause health problems or possible death. A recall is intended to remove food products from commerce when there is reason to believe the products may be adulterated or misbranded,” according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). This information is then compiled and published online by either the FDA, which oversees nonanimal-related recalls like in prepared foods, produce, and baked goods, or the USDA, which monitors animal-product recalls (where beef, pork, and poultry are the three most-commonly recalled).
More than 48 million Americans get sick each year from contaminated food, or about one in every 15 Americans, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A good portion of those are due to greens grown in unsafe conditions. Between 2008 and 2019, more than 40 widespread foodborne illness outbreaks could be linked to E. coli-contaminated greens alone, per the FDA.
Between 2008 and 2019, more than 40 widespread foodborne illness outbreaks could be linked to E. coli-contaminated greens alone.
“In general, recalls appear to be increasing, but does that signify a bigger public health problem or better technology and detection?” asks Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at the Consumer Reports in Yonkers, New York, who has been busy keeping up with recalls for everything from flour to chicken nuggets to romaine lettuce in past years.
whitemay/Getty Images Romaine lettuce leaves
Why are Leafy Greens So Often Contaminated?
Beyond widely-publicized recalls, the FDA is worried that more potentially unsafe greens are flying under the radar. A July 2019 spot-check of greens sold at six major retailers (including Costco, Whole Foods, and Acme) found that 2% of leafy green samples tested were contaminated with bacteria that could cause foodborne illness, according to Food Safety News. And consumers are getting so frustrated with the FDA that they have taken legal action to demand more steps are taken to guarantee the items that are grown and sold in every state are safe to eat.
Making our greens safer is complicated, though.
“Three seasons in a row, contamination of leafy greens was caused by E. Coli H157H7 from cattle. In Arizona, they identified the outbreak organism in irrigation water that flowed by a huge feedlot that was adjacent to the growing region for so many of the bagged leafy greens we eat during winter. There are no laws that prohibit this,” Halloran says. Issues like this make it difficult to determine where in the process changes are needed. “Do all growers have to test their water daily or chlorinate the water? The FDA is in charge of setting standards for water and can’t figure out the best strategy.”
How Is the FDA Planning to Make Your Leafy Greens Safer?
The FDA recently released the 2020 Leafy Greens STEC Action Plan to attempt to reduce cases of shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) infections caused by consuming romaine, spinach, and other greens. The plan includes a multifaceted strategy, including:
- Implementing rules regarding water quality used for irrigation of leafy green plots
- Prioritizing frequent inspections of farms to ensure compliance with the law
- Engaging retailers to track products for easier recall notifications
- Increasing use of digital tools to track outbreaks, spread outbreak information quicker, and speed up potential preventative efforts
- Tapping farmers to conduct more sampling of all leafy greens, and romaine in particular
- Educating government staff and farm owners on land use issues and how they impact leafy green safety
- Increasing use of technology to detect foodborne illnesses and contaminated produce
- Relying on purchase data to track down and notify the potentially-contaminated (for example, you may receive an email if your store loyalty card tracked that you bought a tainted bunch of greens)
- Improving communication of food recalls, limiting damage done by already-purchased leafy greens
This plan will gradually roll out through 2020 and will be a team effort between the FDA, farmers, retailers, and more. It will take time, but it’s a baby step in the direction of a safer food system.