Do You Remember What Was In That Salad?

Do you remember what was in the salad you ordered a week ago at a restaurant? In a just published paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from Germany’s Robert Koch Institute write that, when tracing an outbreak like the E. coli one last summer in northern Germany that sickened more than 4,300 people and killed 55, scientists and public health officials can never unestimate how many food items people will forget they ate.

In the case of the outbreak that started around the city of Hamburg last summer, scientists were eventually able to trace the culprit to be fenugreek sprouts grown from tainted fenugreek seeds from Egypt, but only after months of uncertainty. An initial claim implicating cucumbers from Spain led to an angry outcry from that country. As time passed, German health authorities continued to offer contradictory information about the source of the outbreak, also singling out tomatoes and leaf salads in local restaurants:

Early studies in Hamburg suggested that infections were probably community-acquired and were not related to food consumption in a particular restaurant. A first case–control study that was conducted on May 23 and 24 suggested that raw food items, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, or leaf salad, were the source of infection. The consumption of sprouts, which was previously implicated in outbreaks of Shiga-toxin–producing E. coli in the United States and Japan, was mentioned by only 25% of case subjects in exploratory interviews, so consumption of sprouts was not tested analytically. [my emphasis]

The search for the outbreak went on for months:

So the researchers kept looking, tracing salad ingredients both forward — from distributors to restaurants to consumers — and backwards, to the farmers. But one of the hardest parts was getting people to remember what exactly had been in their salads. (Even meals that are supposed to be memorable can fade surprisingly quickly, as April Fulton reported this year.)

“The one dish that frequently exposed guests to sprouts was the side salad, which contained tomatoes, cucumbers, three sorts of leaf salads and sprouts,” the researchers write in NEJM. “Sprouts may have been the ingredient that visitors recalled least in such a mixed salad.”

It’s an interesting finding, given that we hear a lot about how the long road from farm to fork — with food products zigzagging the globe at greater and greater distances — puts us at risk.

A salad in Germany or in the US could have ingredients stemming from several different countries, that have passed through several different ports of call. Indeed, while the tainted fenugreek seeds originated in Egypt, the contaminated sprouts came from a local farm in Germany.

If you’ve had a salad in a restaurant, or a ready-made one purchased from a local store, do you remember everything besides the main ingredients — seeds, spices in the dressing, types of greens — that was in it? Did you even think to check before purchasing it, let alone eating it?

Related Care2 Coverage

E. Coli Outbreaks Possible For 3 More Years in Europe

What Are GMOs & How Many US Foods Contain Them? (Infographic)

8 Reasons Not To Trust Monsanto With Your Food [Infographic]



Photo by Lara604


Carole R.
Carole R6 years ago

Good information. Even if we try to be aware of what we eat, this shows you can never be 100% sure.

Chris R.
Chris R6 years ago

Thanks Kristina!~

Holy Lawrence
Holly Lawrence6 years ago

I don't eat salad when I'm out ... because I have been sick one to many times from that tempting pile of restaurant greens!

colleen p.
colleen p6 years ago

in middle school, we had a salad bar. one day i went up to get something and I left my food unattended. I came back to discover little rubber bands in it. the boy sitting in front of me had the same bands in his braces. I explode with emotions and they all laughed and called me crazy.

I remember what was in my salad. If i could remember who they were, and if I ever would encounter them and their children with ice-creams. I think it's only fair to grab that ice-cream and shove it on the child's head and laugh and call them insane when they blubber about it.
"come on, even daddy knows you are hallucinating, there is no ice-cream on your head you dumb***"

ah anecdotal stories.

Monica Miller
Monica Miller6 years ago

I don't eat out every often, for one thing it is hard to find food that is good for you. I am sure the servers don't like to take my order, I ask them what is in the food, like cheese, bacon, and other items I don't eat, they over salt everything, and who knows how clean the kitchen is. I try to pay attention to what is in the salads I eat. Some people tell me I am to picky about what I eat. But I like to eat healthy..

Bianca D
Bianca D6 years ago

There are so many food scares but not as many follow up articles on the real causes. Sometimes I wonder if lack of hygiene in the restaurants isn't a bigger cause of problems than the purported pathogens transported on fruit and veg from source.

Sheri P.
Sheri P6 years ago

Awareness is key...

Julija S.
Julija S6 years ago


K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Kath R.
Kath P6 years ago

Ever since watching Restaurant Nightmares I've stopped eating in restaurants. Before that I occasionally bought veggie wraps.