How vegetables you buy could be dangerous to your health

It is a fact that vegetables are incredibly essential for optimum health. They contain vitamins and minerals that ensure the smooth working of cells, tissues and organs in the body. Although they provide heart-protecting, cancer-fighting, low-calorie benefits, experts say they could also pose a health risk.

A report issued by the Interagency Food Safety Analytics Collaboration (IFSAC), a partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently disclosed the top sources of food borne illnesses. From their findings, it was discovered that leafy vegetables, such as lettuce and spinach, are the worst offenders, being responsible for 46 per cent of all food poisoning cases.

“Most people think of food borne illnesses in terms of meat and poultry but the truth is vegetables when not properly handled can also be a source of poisoning.  The problem usually stems from improper handling and poor hygiene, right from the farming process, harvesting, storage, transportation and even the final end user’s personal hygiene. When you buy vegetables from the market, you can’t be sure about what has taken place between planting, harvesting and post-harvest. Contaminated soil and water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers can be sources of contamination at the farming process. Sometimes, certain chemicals are also used to preserve some of these vegetables and most times fruits. These can be detrimental to one’s health. Also, at the final user, hygiene is also important to prevent poisoning. We see cases of fruit vendors such as watermelon sellers use pocketknives to slice off pieces of fruit and then wipe the knife blade on the front of their shirt or on a dirty rag. They then wrap these and sell to unsuspecting buyers,” Mr Bolaji Akinsipe, an agriculturist said.

Experts say leafy vegetables are the most common cause of poisoning because they tend to be eaten raw. As such, bacteria, especially E.Coli, salmonella, and listeria, are not killed and can cause illness. “Between farming, harvesting and transporting to the market, vegetables can be exposed to all kinds of micro-organisms including disease-causing ones. Eating these vegetables raw will definitely be a health risk. Lettuce is particularly dangerous to eat raw as harmful bacteria can form within the plant tissue. This means that when the lettuce is even washed, the bacteria will not be washed away. With fresh tomatoes, while washing gets rid of bacteria on the skin, salmonella can enter the tissue through the stem or cracks in the skin. This is why it is not advisable to eat broken tomatoes raw,” Mr Akinsipe stated.


The way out

Organic farming

Since most vegetables come from the open market, it behoves those in the chain of production and sales to ensure optimum standards from scratch. Mr Timothy Ayodele of Cato Foods and Agro Allied Concepts said, “organic farming is the best option for every farmer to adopt. There has to be increased awareness on the need for organic farming. With organic farming, no chemical is used at any level. Organic manure sourced from poultry droppings can be used as fertilizer and the extract from the leaves of the Neem tree (dogoyaro) can be used as pesticides. These are trusted and tried means of growing crops, unfortunately in this part of the world, a lot of farmers are yet to catch up with the trend. Some countries are into complete organic farming and they are succeeding, for instance Israel. With organic farming, there is no fear about chemical exposure which can be detrimental to one’s health. The ecosystem and environment are also preserved because there is exposure to harmful chemicals. It is true that chemical pesticides and fertilizers work, but the concern is how they affect the health especially when used directly on vegetables because the vegetable leaves are what we consume. It is usually said that when the sun beats and rain falls on the sprayed leaves, it could wash the chemicals away, but then it is still not advisable.”

Pesticides are chemicals which are sprayed on crops so as to kill or repel pests. These pests include insects, birds, mammals, weeds, roundworms and microbes. Although it can be perceived to be a good thing but the issue is that it could lead to pesticide poisoning when someone eats vegetables that have been sprayed with pesticide.

Symptoms of pesticide poisoning include abdominal cramps, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, headache, blurred vision, feeling weak and shaky, twitchy muscles, extreme tiredness. These symptoms often appear within minutes of exposure to a pesticide although in some cases they may take longer to develop.


Farmers’ and sellers’ hygiene

Ensuring the use of cleaner irrigation water and better sanitary practices among farmers can also help prevent contamination by bacteria and other harmful micro-organisms. For example, farms need to ensure that workers don’t urinate in fields, they can also develop better ways of cleaning farming or processing equipment.

Mr Ayodele adds that precaution be taken during harvesting, storage and transportation to prevent exposure to pests, vehicle exhaust and dust. Proper post-harvest processing of vegetable produce can also reduce the incidences of contamination and subsequent poisoning.


End user hygiene

Mrs Yemisi Solanke-Lawal, a nutritionist/dietician and Chief Executive Officer, Evergreen Health and Social Care International Limited, recommends following these steps to prevent foodborne illness or food poisoning from fruits and vegetables:

Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables with cool tap water before cutting. This rule applies to fruits with a peel, too. Peels can carry bacteria that can contaminant fruit when cutting or peeling.

Scrub firm produce such as melons and cucumbers with a clean produce brush.

Remove and discard outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage.

Store clean vegetables in a clean container, not in the original container.


Grow your own vegetables

Although it might seem overwhelming, but the fact remains that anyone can grow vegetables.  All that is needed is a few square feet of the great outdoors (rather than floor the entire compound, create little space for a vegetable patch), a water source, good seeds and a little time. Growing your vegetables proffers numerous benefits. According to Mr Akinsipe, some of these benefits are:


Saves cost

With the harsh economic realities comes the necessary need to tighten up and reduce spending as much as possible. While man’s basic needs — food, clothing, shelter, transport — can’t be overlooked, fortunately there are still ways one can get around reducing expenses especially in the area of feeding. One easy way to do this is by growing your own vegetables and herbs.

Safer food: By growing your own vegetables, you won’t have to worry about chemical contamination from the farms or during delivery. If it’s in your backyard, it’s safe.

Freshness: You would have access to fresh foods anytime, any day. With proper irrigation, you can have fresh vegetables all year round.

Nutrient-packed veggies: Studies prove that organically grown food has more much-needed vitamins and minerals than vegetables grown with synthetic pesticides. A backyard garden starts with highly nourished soil, which means more nourishment for the plants and, ultimately, our bodies.

Less environmental impact: If you grow your food organically, without pesticides and harmful chemicals, you’ll be protecting the environment from pollution.


What to grow

Everyday vegetables can easily be self-grown. There are available seeds in various agricultural/agro businesses nationwide. Such vegetables include scent leaves (Efirin), Fluted African Pumpkin (Ugwu), Amaranthus (Efo), waterleaves, pepper, tomatoes, garden eggs and the likes.