Basics about contaminated fruits & vegetables

November 16, 2016

Most of us are familiar with the dangers of consuming contaminated meat, but many don't realize that fruits and veggies can also harbor the same microbes, even causing the same severe diseases. From dirt and fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics, to pathogens spread from shoppers at the grocery store, our food is a lot dirtier than we often imagine it to be. Most of us have also seen the spike in the world news about people getting very sick after consuming produce like tomatoes, spinach, and bagged salads. This has been an increasing problem.

Fruit and vegetables are now responsible for more large-scale outbreaks of food-borne illnesses than meat, poultry or eggs, accounting for 12 percent of all food-borne illnesses and 6 percent of the outbreaks according to the Food Poison Journal.

Of course, many are familiar with E. coli outbreaks, but it is not the only dangerous microbe to hitch a ride on our food. Bacteria such as salmonella and Hepatitis A, are among the many other germs becoming prominent outbreaks.

E. coli

E. coli infections are caused by eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water, or coming into contact with someone who is sick or with animals that carry the bacteria. Raw fruits and vegetables can become contaminated with E. coli while in the field by improperly composted manure, contaminated water, wildlife or poor hygiene by farm workers.

In 2011, an E. coli outbreak in Europe that was attributed to eating fenugreek sprouts grown at a farm in Germany resulted in 4,321 cases. Cases were reported throughout the European Union and the United States with an unknown number of hospitalizations, but at least 908 instances of hemolytic uremic syndrome, and 50 deaths.


The bacteria Salmonella can get inside of hens and eggs due to unsanitary coop conditions, but can also thrive on the surface of fruits and vegetables. This occurs when the water used to irrigate food crops is drawn from a place near livestock, which can cause fecal bacteria to spread through the water to the food.

In 2010, the outbreak, which has sickened at least 89 people in the U.S., was traced to alfalfa sprouts produced by Tiny Greens Organic Farm and sold in products at Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis A food-related outbreaks are usually associated with contamination of food during preparation by an infected food handler. However, fresh produce can also be contaminated during cultivation, harvesting, processing, and distribution.

In 1997, frozen strawberries were the source of a hepatitis A outbreak in five states, and in 2003, fresh green onions were identified as the source traced to a Pennsylvania restaurant. Other produce, such as blueberries and lettuce, has been associated with hepatitis A outbreaks in the U.S. as well as other developed countries.


The sharp rise in produce-associated poisoning in the United States can be attributed to changes in food sourcing, demand, and distribution. Crops have always been vulnerable to contamination because they're grown near farms that also raise animals, and bacteria from manure leaches into soil and water. Rapidly growing agricultural consolidation, from small family farms to centralized agribusiness, magnifies the risk.

So, what's the solution? Some, mostly large food distributers and chain grocery stores, see irradiation as an option. Irradiation is a process in which food is exposed to high doses of gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams radiation to kill bacteria in food. This option doesn’t appeal to us. At NATUFIA, we believe that eating organic and homegrown produce is the best way to stay healthy. Another option is always purchasing produce from well-known, local farmer’s markets and to wash it thoroughly. Practicing meticulous personal hygiene is not only for family members, but for anyone interfacing with the food supply chain. But by minimizing the supply chain, growing your own produce, you can minimize your chances of contamination drastically.  

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