April 8, 2024

Food Poisoning from Leafy Greens

Most health experts recommend incorporating fresh, leafy greens into your daily diet. Rich in fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants, they are an excellent source of nutrients with several health benefits. However, these leafy vegetables can also carry harmful bacteria, viruses, and other germs that cause foodborne illnesses if improperly handled.

leafy greens
  • Leafy greens, while nutritious, are often implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks due to contamination from bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
  • Contaminants can enter leafy greens at any stage, from farming to preparation, with common sources including cattle waste, contaminated water, and unsanitary handling.
  • The CDC recommends washing leafy greens under running water without disinfectants to reduce but not eliminate the risk of consuming harmful germs.

While there are strict guidelines on food handling and preparation in the United States, leafy greens are a common culprit of food poisoning. Between 2014 and 2021, 78 foodborne illness outbreaks connected to lettuce and other leafy greens were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What Makes Leafy Greens a Risk for Food Poisoning?

Unlike many foods, lettuce and other leafy greens are often consumed raw. Whether in a salad, on a sandwich, or as a garnish to a main course, leafy vegetables are a popular way to add color, texture, and flavor to dishes. However, raw foods are more likely to contain germs or pathogens invisible to the naked eye, which can make consumers sick.

Additionally, consider where the greens originate. Raw vegetables and other types of produce are often contaminated with germs found in the soil or water.

Consumer Reports adds that romaine lettuce is particularly at risk for contamination because of its delicate leaves. When leaves are broken or damaged, bacteria are more likely to get inside where they cannot be rinsed.

According to the CDC, washing leafy greens helps remove most harmful germs that can make you sick. However, no washing method will completely remove all germs.

Commonly Contaminated Leafy Greens

When you’re shopping at the grocery store or farmer’s market, it may not even occur to you that you could get food poisoning from lettuce or other vegetables. Unfortunately, many people become ill after consuming contaminated leafy greens.

Common types of leafy greens that carry some risk of foodborne illnesses include the following:

Food Poisoning From Leafy Greens

Many consumers have questions about the safety of fresh produce, including leafy vegetables. Can bad spinach make you sick? What happens if you eat bad arugula? Can you get food poisoning from lettuce?

The truth is that eating raw foods increases the risk of developing a foodborne illness. There’s also a chance of developing food poisoning if food is not packaged, handled, or cooked properly.

Common types of bacteria, viruses, and microbes that contaminate leafy greens and cause food poisoning include:

How Does Food Poisoning in Leafy Greens Happen?

Leafy greens can get contaminated with dangerous bacteria, parasites, viruses, and other germs at any point from farming and harvest through preparation. Vegetables are sometimes grown on farms where cattle or other animals are nearby. Rain runoff or improper irrigation can lead to animal waste contaminating leafy green crops.

Sometimes, packaging facilities fail to maintain a clean environment and introduce germs during processing. Produce transported to distribution plants or stores can also become contaminated if the vehicle is not at the right temperature or food handlers do not follow safe practices.

Current data show leafy vegetable contamination can come from:

leafy greens food poisoning infographic

Food Safety Practices With Leafy Greens

The CDC provides the following tips for individuals on handling leafy greens and preventing food poisoning from these types of vegetables:

Because leafy greens are generally delicate, you don’t want to store them too long in the refrigerator. They can quickly become wilted and damaged, allowing bacteria to enter and multiply. Check dates, follow the guidelines provided on the product’s packaging, and discard any spoiled or damaged produce.

What Can Businesses Do To Prevent Leafy Greens Food Poisoning?

Restaurants, hotels, and other food-service businesses must follow all food safety guidelines when handling and preparing leafy greens. Management can also build relationships with their suppliers to understand more about the packaging, shipping, and delivery processes and how they affect the product’s quality.

It’s also essential to educate staff members on safe practices, including:

Leafy Green Food Poisoning Outbreaks

Between 2014 and 2021, the CDC reported 2,028 illnesses, 477 hospitalizations, and 18 deaths connected to contaminated leafy greens. There also have been several recent foodborne illness outbreaks and recalls involving leafy greens, including the following incidents:

Negligence and Leafy Greens Food Poisoning

If you believe you or a loved one developed food poisoning from leafy greens due to negligence, Keep Food Safe can help. 

Contact us to learn more about your rights and if you qualify to take legal action against negligent food handlers or distributors.

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