BARELY a day goes by in which we are not told to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables.
We will live longer, remain healthier and generally enjoy life more, they say. We will even save the planet and go to the environmental equivalent of heaven when we die (believers being generally non-religious) if the fruit and vegetables are organic and locally grown.
What we are not told is the fact that we might also catch food poisoning and become very ill, and perhaps even die. Fresh fruit and vegetables, especially leafy vegetables such as lettuce, are responsible for a large proportion of food-borne illnesses.
The US government’s Centre for Disease Control recently released a report of a study of food-borne disease outbreaks over 11 years from 1998 through 2008.
It found produce foods, defined as fruits, nuts and five vegetable types, cause illness in 4.4 million people in the US a year. About 2.2 million people get sick annually from eating contaminated leafy vegetables, representing about 23% of the 9.6 million cases of food-borne illness each year. Similar proportions would inevitably be found in Australia.
In other words, it can be risky to consume fresh fruit and vegetables, particularly leafy vegetables such as lettuce.
An additional risk comes when the produce is produced organically, since this usually means relying on manure for fertiliser. In Germany last year 23 people were killed and more than 1000 hospitalised as a result of E. coli infection from organic bean sprouts. That’s twice as many as died as a result of the nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico combined.
There are a number of options for avoiding, or at least reducing, the risk of acquiring food poisoning from fresh fruit and vegetables.
One is to avoid eating organic fresh food. If it’s been fertilised with manure, it’s dangerous. Another is to only consume produce that comes in a natural protective wrapping, such as bananas.
The CDC recommends rinsing fresh fruits and vegetables in running tap water to remove visible dirt and grime, and the removal and discard of the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage.
Because bacteria can grow well on the cut surface of fruit or vegetable, it also advises being careful not to contaminate these foods while slicing them up on the cutting board, and avoid leaving cut produce at room temperature for many hours.
It further suggests taking care not to become a source of foodborne illness yourself. That means not preparing food for others if you yourself have a diarrheal illness, and of course not changing a baby's nappies while preparing food.
Naturally, if the produce is cooked then any contaminants are killed. The risk of contamination is also low if it is snap frozen shortly after harvest.
But perhaps the last word should go to those who believe in the concept of only consuming recycled fruit and vegetables. In their eyes, steak comes from cattle which consume grass, clearly making it a vegetable. Bacon is from pigs, which eat grain (ie. a vegetable). And of course beer and whisky are mainly made from barley.
For those wanting salad with their recycled grass, low risk options can be found. Potato chips (obviously a vegetable) are cooked in vegetable oil. Tomato sauce is made from cooked tomatoes while mayonnaise contains more recycled grass. For an exotic touch add some pickles (a cooked vegetable) and anchovies (healthy seafood).
Another version is to each day try to enjoy something from each of the four food groups: the sugar group, the salty-snack group, the caffeine group, and the "whatever-the-thing-in-the-tinfoi l-in-the-back-of-the-fridge-is" group.
David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 years. He may be contacted at email@example.com