Leafy Veggie Contamination Rate Rising

If you've gotten the feeling that there are more contaminated leafy green vegetables out there than there used to be, new numbers from federal researchers suggest you're right.

The researchers, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sought to see whether increased outbreaks of food contamination simply reflect the fact that health-conscious Americans are eating more fresh, leafy veggies such as cabbage, spinach and salad greens than they used to, Early Show medical contributor Dr. Emily Senay said Wednesday.

But, she says, they found it's apparently more than that.

During the decade that ended in 2005, consumption of leafy greens rose by nine percent, according to the researchers, but outbreaks of food-borne illnesses attributed to those foods increased by what Senay dubs "a dramatic" 39 percent -- more than four times as fast.

The CDC investigators aren't sure what's at work here, Senay pointed out to Russ Mitchell, noting, "You can't say it's just that Americans are eating more of this stuff. Something else is going on."

It's clear, she continued, that there are plenty of opportunities for food to be contaminated on what can be a long journey from the farm to your kitchen, and even in your kitchen.

The new numbers, Senay observed, show that this problem in the food supply system is growing, and needs solutions.

More than half the outbreaks reported involved a family of viruses called noro-virus, which is often carried by human or animal waste. The next two most common forms of infection came from a pair of well-known forms of food-borne bacteria, salmonella and e-coli.

Over the past 30 years, contaminants in leafy vegetables are blamed for more than 18,000 illnesses, and 15 deaths.

Overall, she says, this is a reminder of how vigilant consumers need to be when purchasing and preparing fresh vegetables.

One problem, says Senay, is that we pretty much can't identify tainted veggies just by looking at them. Of course, if you see any portions of the food that are clearly damaged, the Food and Drug Administration says to cut them off and throw them out.

But veggies can look fine and still be contaminated.

Experts say your best protection is to take everything to a sink, put it under a stream of warm running water, and rinse it out thoroughly -- not just casually -- thoroughly. And don't use soap or detergent to wash it, because the ingredients in soap aren't anything you want to eat, either.

Do a really good job rinsing these vegetables, and you improve your chances of getting the important nutrition they veggies offer -- rather than the contaminants!