Tilly: The salad menace

BY ZACH TILLY | AUGUST 01, 2013 5:00 AM

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While you were stuck in Iowa City, the food-borne stomach bug cyclospora spent its summer on a freewheeling trip through 16 states, mostly in the central and southern United States, getting to know at least 372 Americans quite intimately.

At the center of this summer’s outbreak of cyclospora is Iowa, where 143 of the nation’s 372 infections have taken place. The source of the widespread infection had been a mystery until Tuesday, when the Iowa Department of Public Health announced that it had fingered the likely culprit: bagged salad.

According to the Public Health Department’s report, at least 80 percent of Iowa’s cyclospora infections could be traced back to a specific (but unnamed) brand of packaged salad containing iceberg and romaine lettuce, carrots, red cabbage, and a handful of vicious, diarrhea-inducing protozoa.   

The offending product is no longer a health risk, and the risk of future infections is low, but this whole sorry episode is still a damning indictment of salad and fresh produce more broadly.

Eating salad is supposed to a cleansing act of self-flagellation, something to make you feel better after a long junk-food bender. But for 143 Iowans, salad violated its primary duty and just made everything worse.

For their trouble, these salad-eaters were treated to a parade of symptoms that include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, muscle ache, and on and on. An untreated cyclospora infection can cause diarrhea that lasts up to 57 days (57 days!), according to Iowa health officials. Thankfully, these infections are almost never fatal — no one has died in this year’s outbreak.

We ought to take a long, hard look at the dark side of the fruits and vegetables we hail as the gold standard of healthy eating. For all its faults, a bag of Fritos has never wrecked somebody’s insides like that.

And this cyclospora business is far from an isolated incident. Produce has a robust history of hurting people.

In the fall of 2011, cantaloupe from a farm in Colorado contaminated with listeria infected 139 people in 28 states and killed (killed!) 29 of them.

In 2008, more than 1,400 people in 43 states were infected with salmonella thanks to contaminated jalapeño and serrano peppers.

In 2006, 205 people were made sick and three were killed by spinach.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that approximately 128,000 people were hospitalized in the United States for food-borne illnesses in 2011. That year, 3,000 people died because they ate some bad food.

And the first thing the CDC recommends you do to prevent such an unfortunate occurrence?

“Wash produce. Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables in running tap water to remove visible dirt and grime. Remove and discard the outermost leaves of a head of lettuce or cabbage.”

Clearly, these fruits and vegetables are not flawless nuggets of pure nutrition but something more insidious. Still, the powers that be portray these bacterial Trojan horses as the infallible alternative to the garbage we inhale daily, and we browse the produce section with the reverence of road-weary pilgrims in a room full of holy relics.

We trust too much. Who among us hasn’t rubbed an apple on his shirt and called it clean?

I’m not saying that we should cast our veggies aside, but we should keep a skeptical eye on them.

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