And researchers think that number is the tip of the iceberg (lettuce). Not all who find a critter in their pre-cut kale contact a newsroom.
“We are pretty confident that we just scratched the surface in terms of that number of total incidents over that period,” says the study’s lead author, Daniel Hughes, a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Because there’s no central database for reports of wildlife found in produce, Hughes and his research team set out to gather that data themselves, based on news coverage. They searched the online work — including text and video — of national and local news outlets, syndicated blogs and other websites.
They looked for reports of customers purchasing produce — fresh, canned or frozen — from a store and then discovering it contained wildlife. Hughes points out the limitations to this approach: Some articles might have appeared only in print. Some customers might have reported incidents to the grower or grocery store and not the news media. Also, incidents that went entirely unreported are not captured.
Hughes marvels that some animals survive the journey from field to shelf — through harvesting, packaging and shipping.
“If they can make it all the way to the end stage of the produce supply chain, which is the purchase by the customer, that’s pretty amazing,” he says.
How does an animal make it through all that? Blame it on the bag.
In the past, when produce was shipped loose in containers, “there were opportunities for the animals to escape, there were more opportunities for people to look and inspect these things as they’re being shipped,” Hughes says. But now, produce is often shipped ready-to-eat in closed bags and containers — which essentially double as inescapable terrariums. “You have it in a closed container that goes, basically, from wherever that bag closed up to directly to the consumer’s table,” he says.
So what exactly did people find in their produce?
In 21 of the 40 incidents, consumers found frogs and toads. Reptiles — lizards and snakes – accounted for nine incidents, while mammals — rodents and bats — accounted for seven. Customers discovered birds in three cases. Most animals were dead when discovered. But at least 10 incidents involved live animals, including nine live frogs.
Customers found animals more often in conventionally grown produce (72.5%) than organic (27.5%).
On average, between 2008 and 2018, the news media reported 3.8 incidents each year. Between 2013 and 2018, reports averaged 4.6 per year.
Incidents were reported in 20 states. Eight states had at least two incidents. Texas and Florida had the most reports – each had five. California and New York followed with four each. Florida had the most diverse spread – a rodent, a bat, two amphibians and a bird.
As Hughes pored over these reports, he began to notice trends in the media coverage. “There were some patterns overall that really stood out to me once I had 40 incidents,” he says.
First, there is a pervasive misconception that it’s common to find animals in organic produce.
“If it was organic, it was emphasized in just about every article that, ‘Oh, you should expect this. Well, duh, it was organic — of course you get a frog,’” he says. “But when we crunch the numbers, we actually saw the opposite. We saw three times more for conventional versus organic … So that was kind of interesting, peoples’ gut reactions to organic produce was a misperception.”
Hughes suggests that going forward, journalists can push back against this misconception using his data supplemented with a bit of knowledge about big farming. “There’s essentially no difference between an organic farm and a conventional farm when you’re talking about the industrial scale,” he explains. “These are just giant industrial monocropping, there’s no fence in between where one starts, and one begins. If you didn’t know the ranches, if you didn’t know the location, you would say they all are the same. But one just has a small sign that usually says do not spray here because this is organic.”
Second is the misperception that such occurrences are rare. “Basically, every article across the board would say, ‘Oh, a super rare thing happened today and it was this — a frog in someone’s salad or a lizard in someone’s can of beans, or whatever it may be,’” Hughes says. “And while 38 [cases] across a 10-year period is infrequent, it’s not necessarily a really rare thing,” he adds, especially considering the possibility of underreporting.
This ties into the issue of clickbait, Hughes says. Journalists “weren’t looking for the truth of the story, or the details behind it. They were more looking to just give you a, ‘Wow, isn’t this shocking?’ type thing,” he says. He continues, “It’s kind of an odd, interesting, weird thing that’s going on. I don’t think that’s just going to go away, I think that people are still going to be fascinated by it, and want to read about it. And I think the articles will keep coming. But, hopefully, they’re more accurate.”
Third, Hughes points out that the framing of some reports is problematic. A story of a live frog found in produce might end on a feel-good note if it’s released into the wild.
“From a wildlife perspective, that’s a totally wrong thing to do,” he says. “Frogs are declining at crazy rates right now. And a lot of it is driven by fungal disease and being spread by human-mediated dispersal. So releasing a non-native frog into your backyard, although you think that might be a good idea, it’s actually worse for the local populations of frogs. It could potentially be spreading disease. It could be adding invasive species.” Hughes suggests keeping the animal as a pet or donating it to a classroom for further study.
Journalists can promote awareness about these issues in their coverage and offer pointers to guide others who encounter live animals in produce.
When customers find animals in their produce, Hughes recommends that they:
Document it. Take pictures and record details about the produce, including batch information, if possible. This can help academics conducting research on the issue as well as growers.
Throw it out. Hughes does not endorse eating the produce – especially if the animal has started to decompose. “You wouldn’t want to eat the produce item if the animal has rotted, obviously,” he says. That being said, if you’ve already eaten some — or if you can’t bear to waste food — it’s probably fine. “There’s never been a link between a frog getting into produce and a human outbreak of disease,” he says. “So in terms of whether this is going to cause you some type of distress, in that sense, I would say no, probably.”
In light of his findings, Hughes exercises caution when enjoying bagged produce. “I would wash everything,” he says. “Unless you’re cooking it in a stew, and even then, maybe a quick rinse. But unless you’re really cooking or sautéing the lettuce, definitely rinse it — especially if you’re going to eat it fresh.”
The reason for rinsing is not so much that the lettuce isn’t clean, Hughes notes. If it’s triple washed, it probably is. But rinsing allows you to spot check for lurkers: “That gives you an opportunity to not end up like some of the unfortunate people who didn’t notice that there was something in it ‘til they started eating their salad.”
Citation: Hughes, Daniel F.; et al. "There's a Frog in My Salad! A Review of Online Media Coverage for Wild Vertebrates Found in Prepackaged Produce in the United States," Science of The Total Environment, 2019. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.03.254.