Those who follow my blog and social media know I’m passionate about promoting fact-based food and nutrition information to help people “eat beyond the headlines” and enjoy a variety of nutrient-rich foods. Most of the time those scary headlines are a result of a study misrepresented and sensationalized in the media or an activist group with an agenda fostering fear about perfectly safe foods or ingredients. But the headlines that appeared in the news this past week evoke fear of food for a different reason and that’s food safety.
The latest headlines are a result of a Consumer Reports investigation of 284 samples of bagged and loose lettuce and other leafy greens from supermarkets that found six (2%) contained listeria. Listeria monocytogenes is a bacteria that causes the foodborne illness listeriosis especially in high-income, industrialized countries. It is widespread in the environment. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), compared to other foodborne illnesses, listeriosis is rare but very serious. Healthy children and adults occasionally get listeriosis, but seldom become seriously ill. People with weakened immune systems, pregnant women and the elderly, however, are at greater risk of a more severe form of listeriosis. (1) The report quotes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) medical officer, Karen Wong, M.D., as saying, “It is rare for healthy adults to get sick with listeria infection.”
SPOILER ALERT: This report does NOT advise people to stop eating lettuce and leafy greens. Nor does the report mean that leafy greens are riskier than any other foods – despite the scary headline. In fact, the report notes that listeria is usually associated with deli meats, hot dogs, soft cheeses and sprouts. They also state that the “study represents a snapshot of the market and was not large enough to draw conclusions about the safety of specific brands or retailers.” Keep reading for more context.
Food Safety Facts
Listeria is commonly found in many food items, not just leafy greens. If you check the FDA’s website you will see that several were involved in recent recalls due the detection of listeria. These included egg, tuna and lobster products in addition to other vegetables like squash and cauliflower.
We are fortunate in the U.S. to have the safest food supply in the world. Our government and its agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have regulations and programs that ensure those who grow, process and distribute our food are following high standards of safety and sanitation. There are other voluntary organizations that set additional standards and conduct testing of foods and farms to further ensure safety. But no system is perfect and at times we do have outbreaks that compromise the safety of a food for a short period of time. But, again, the government and its departments are quick to evaluate the situation and make sure the offending products are removed from our food supply until the problem is resolved.
As registered dietitians, my colleagues and I are concerned that most folks in our country are not eating enough fruits and vegetables. In fact, only 1 in 10 people consume the recommended amount of produce each day. A just-published study in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition reviewed nearly 100 studies that looked at the effects of fruits and vegetables on a variety of diseases. Their findings: eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day can drastically reduce the risk of heart disease, protect us from certain forms of cancer and promote eye and bone health, among other benefits. (2)
So anything that prevents people from eating fruits and vegetables is a concern for me, whether it’s from scary headlines that promote misinformation or real food safety issues. Putting these headlines in perspective is among the roles I play as a nutrition communications specialist. To this end, I have partnered with two organizations to further my efforts. First, I’m one of 16 volunteer Fruit and Vegetable Ambassadors in Action selected by the Produce for Better Health Foundation. Our role is to encourage increased intake of fruits and vegetables, not only for their many health benefits but also because they help you look good, feel good and have more energy. I am also a consultant with the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), to help spread the word about the safety and nutritional value of leafy greens. LGMA is a program that verifies compliance with the food safety practices of leafy green growers through mandatory government audits.
Putting it in Perspective
How often does food contaminated with listeria actually result in an illness? The number of foodborne illnesses is extremely small compared to the vast amount of food eaten in the U.S. And when it comes to leafy greens, the chance of becoming ill is much, much less than the risk of dying in a plane crash or being struck by lightning. Yet 1 in 4 people die of heart disease every year in the U.S. (3) And that is a statistic we know can be dramatically improved by eating more fruits and vegetables, including leafy greens like lettuce and spinach.
Consumer Reports focused only on lettuce and leafy greens in this new report. Because leafy greens are packed and most often eaten raw, it is not overly surprising that that 2% of the samples tested contained listeria. They did not test other food products or even fresh vegetables to see if they had a similar small number with listeria. And they did not find other bacteria that cause foodborne illness, such as salmonella and E. coli in these 284 samples.
In reality, Consumer Reports’ findings are in line with previous ones conducted by U.S. government agencies. A study published in 2017 found listeria monocytogenes in just over one percent of 1,700 raw cut vegetable samples tested from 2010-2013 by USDA and FDA scientists. And this is similar to previously published research, which the fresh produce industry relies on to stay informed and in front of food safety concerns that could affect consumers.
The Bottom Line
This report does NOT mean leafy greens are riskier than any other foods. And, in my professional opinion, greens deliver much greater health benefits than health risks. I am not, however, suggesting that we should ignore health warnings related to foodborne illness. We certainly should, especially when a government agency issues a recall or consumer advisory, which they have not done so far in this case..
People in vulnerable groups – those with weakened immune systems, the elderly and pregnant women - may want to take additional precautions such as these mentioned in the Consumer Reports article:
Fortunately leafy greens like kale and spinach are delicious and just as nutritious when they are cooked as when eaten raw.
The CDC also provides additional suggestions for preventing illness from listeria due to other foods on their website.