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The Physicians Committee

The Salad is Innocent!

June 6, 2011

By Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.

It’s a bad time to be a salad ingredient in Germany. German health officials first warned consumers against eating cucumbers after believing these gourds were to blame for the recent E. coli outbreak which has already killed at least 22 people and sickened more than 2,300 across Europe.

Officials later added tomatoes and salad greens to the no-no list, and a more recent warning implicated bean sprouts. But German authorities still haven’t been able to connect the outbreak to any of these otherwise healthful foods. Officials just announced that tests on sprouts from the organic farm they thought was to blame came back negative. Consumers across Europe are puzzled about what is safe to eat, and the German government continues to struggle to find an answer.

It’s unfortunate that this outbreak is leading Germans to cut back on vegetable consumption, especially since these foods appear to have no connection to this outbreak. Officials need to move quickly to identify the immediate source of illness, and they also need to pay more attention to the outbreak’s likely original source—factory farms.

Officials in Germany and every other country need to stop viewing food contamination as an unavoidable fact of life and investigate the many public health consequences of industrialized animal agriculture. E. coli originates in the intestinal tracts of cows and other animals. If cucumbers had been tainted, it likely would have been because manure from an infected animal contaminated the fertilizer or irrigation water.

Most consumers still aren’t getting the real story about E. coli. Consumers should know that reducing meat consumption can help decrease everyone’s risk of foodborne illness by reducing the number of animals on farms. This would also help fight environmental destruction and diet-related chronic diseases.  

Consumers should continue to heed health officials’ advice about what foods to avoid until this investigation ends. But they should also know that E. coli and most other foodborne illnesses should be blamed on the steak rather than the salad.

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., is the director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.
Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.

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