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- Since 2003, there have been more than 40 reports of frogs, mice, snakes, and other animals found in bagged salads or lettuce in the U.S., according to a new survey. Some of the critters were live.
- Most of these incidents occurred in the past 10 years, suggesting the problem might be growing in part due to changing farming and food transportation practices.
- Texas, Florida, California, and New York had the most incidents of surprise wildlife in the produce aisle.
- Eating enough produce is still one of the best things you can do for your health. Just be sure to shop and prepare your food wisely.
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If you’re a fan of ripping open a bag of spinach, kale, or salad mix for a quick and healthy meal, keep an eye out for lizards in those leaves.
A July study in Science of the Total Environment has found that 40 people in the U.S. have discovered “extemporaneous wildlife” – including frogs, lizards, snakes, and mice – in their pre-bagged produce since 2003. The vast majority of instances oc cured in the past decade, leading researchers to think the problem has become more common.
To conduct the study, which aimed to catalog the frequency of these incidents since there’s not yet a central public complaint system where customers can report them, researchers combed internet search engines for media coverage dating back to 2003.
Since some incidents were likely missed by the media, the study’s authors suggested the actual number of animals found in produce could be higher than their data shows.
Twenty-three incidents, more than half the total studied, were reported in the past five years, a rate of more than four per year. While the researchers’ conclusion was that the incidents have become more common, it’s also possible they’ve become easier to publicize via the interet.
Since 2003, reports of wildlife in produce were found in 20 states, including Oregon, Utah, North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia. Texas, Florida, California, and New York had the highest concentration of incidents. The upper Midwest was also a common region for finding critters, with reports cataloged in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.
The most common critter discovered by surprised shoppers was frogs, followed by snakes and lizards. Mice, occasional birds, and even a bat were also found amongst the foliage. Ten of the animals were found alive.
The types of produce also varied. Salad mixes were most often an offender for stowaways, but spinach, green beans, romaine, and kale were also guilty of concealing wildlife.
Organic produce wasn’t immune from the problem, either. Although conventionally-grown food was more likely to contain a critter, 1 in 4 of the incidents involved organic produce.
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Farming and food transportation practices may be contributing to the problem
More than startling, an unexpected animal protein in your greens can pose serious health risks. Nasty illnesses like E. coli and salmonella can be spread via contaminated food.
Rodents can spread nearly a dozen diseases, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, including Hantavirus and potentially deadly Leptospirosis.
Researchers believe that changes in industrial farming, including the increasing spread of farmland onto previously-wild areas, and systems of food transportation, have contributed to the problem. The authors argued that this survey dispels the myth that finding an animal in produce is a “very rare” occurrence. They also cited a lack of transparency and proper response in addressing the issue of animal-related contaminants.
More research is needed, however, to understand the patterns behind the incidents and what can be done to prevent them. The ultimate goal, researchers wrote, would be to establish more sustainable farming practices that can keep wildlife away via non-lethal means.
Meantime, continue eating produce: The health benefits outweigh the still-small risk of finding a critter on your plate, or even the risk of getting something like E. coli from non-critter-related contamination. Just be sure to shop wisely and prepare it appropriately.
For instance, only buy prepacked products that are refrigerated or on ice, and don’t look damage or bruised, recommends FoodSafety.gov, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Refrigerate it right away and keep it separate from raw meat.
And don’t worry about washing produce that says it’s pre-washed. “It is possible that the additional handling may contaminate a product that was clean,” the site says.