Viral Food Poisoning from Pesticides?

Did Pesticides Cause Your Food Poisoning?

Although the most serious causes of food poisoning like Salmonella come largely from animal products (for example, most foodborne-related deaths have been attributed to poultry), millions of Americans are sickened by produce every year, thanks to noroviruses. Noroviruses can spread person-to-person via the fecal-oral route or by the ingestion of aerosolized vomit, which together may explain most norovirus food outbreaks. But a substantial proportion remained unexplained. How else can fecal viruses get on our fruits and veggies?

The pesticide industry may be spraying them on (See Norovirus Food Poisoning from Pesticides).

The water that’s used to spray pesticides on crops may be dredged up from ponds contaminated with fecal pathogens. When you hear of people getting infected with a stomach bug like E. coli from something like spinach, it’s important to realize that the pathogen didn’t originate from the spinach. Intestinal bugs come from intestines. Greens don’t have guts; plants don’t poop.

“The application of pesticides may therefore not only be a chemical hazard, but also a microbiological hazard for public health.” What is the industry’s solution? To add more chemicals! “The inclusion of antiviral substances in reconstituted pesticides,” researchers assert, “may be appropriate to reduce the virological health risk posed by the application of pesticides.” Or we could just choose organic.

Likewise the Salmonella in alfalfa sprout seeds (See Don’t Eat Raw Alfalfa Sprouts) likely came from manure run-off or contaminated irrigation water. But this pesticide angle adds a whole new route for fecal pathogens to pollute produce. Broccoli Sprouts are safer, and organic sprouts may therefore be safer still (See Broccoli Sprouts).

Organic foods may also be healthier (see Cancer Fighting Berries) and don’t carry the potential chemical hazards associated with pesticides. See my videos:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: jetsandzeppelins / Flickr

  • Nicole

    Dr. Greger, please write as soon as there is any research into any health differences (including contamination issues like the salmonella on the alfalfa sprouts) through the use of veganic permaculture practices. I am curious to learn if there is a meaningful difference with farmers who abstain from using animal-based fertilizing methods (like cow poop and blood meal).

    Here is an example of what I’m talking about:
    ^This company sources its ingredients from farms that use vegan permaculture practices

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      That would be interesting, Nicole. I’ll be sure to bring this up. This article was more about pesticide sprays already being contaminated. The bacteria found in the nooks and crannies of alfalfa seeds likely came from manure run-off or contaminated water. Obtaining alfalfa seeds from fresh water sources and clean soil (I would assume ) lead to less pathogens.

      • Dr. Gonzales,
        I understand that some organic farmers use chicken poop for fertilizer. Correct? How common is that practice? I also understand that some forms of arsenic are used in chicken feed, although the FDA recently banned many of those forms. Do we now have to grill our local organic farmers on what they’re using for fertilizer? Your thoughts?

  • Lea

    Im sorry but organic food does have pesticides, too.

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Good point, Lea. I forget the numbers, but still far less amounts in organics and may be a safer route.

    • Nicole

      What are you sorry for? Just because organic certification is meaningless doesn’t mean there is no pesticide-free food being grown anywhere. Those privileged enough to have access to farmers markets and community gardens can take advantage of knowing which foods are truly pesticide-free, and the rest of us can fight for access to these things. If half of all fast food restaurants and gas stations in the US were community gardens, we’d all know a lot more about how our food was grown, without relying on certifications and labels.

  • justme

    I’m so disgusted. Sometimes I’m grateful for your information but not necessarily happy about it. I am just going to move out into the middle of nowhere and grow my own veggies. It’s final!

  • mdouble

    After several massive recalls of spinach in recent years I was puzzled about how the plants became contaminated. After reading your article, it now makes sense that contaminated the irrigation water is the source of problem. I live in an area where, a decade ago, one local community had a serious issue with contaminated drinking water. In that case the community drinking water came from a common well.

    The well water was contaminated with fecal matter from agricultural run off. The end result was several deaths and a number of people hospitalized after drinking tap water. Investigations found that there were multiple faults in the water treatment system, both mechanical and human in nature.

    After the investigation was completed, huge amounts of money were spent to upgrade the filtration and monitoring system for the community drinking water. However I can well imagine that in most agricultural situations little if any monitoring takes place for water used in irrigation. It would be easy then to imagine how fecal contamination could easily get onto plants and then directly into humans.

    The part of that equation which is not so directly understood is the use of contaminated water to mix pesticides. This is very counter intuitive given the fact that most fruit are grown above ground level, and one assumes normally not exposed to pathogens such as e coli. How clever of us ingenious humans to find a way to get poo on apples.

    Then again we’ve also found a way to get radioactive isotopes from nuclear tests into the bones of all children born since 1950. From that perspective I suppose poop on apples really isn’t such a big surprise.

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Interesting story about the contaminated well-water. That is very unfortunate to hear. I think the folks who spray these pesticides don’t always have access to clean water. The regulations of water use and testing for bacteria seem slim to none. It appears we have so much contaminated water from agriculture run-off that it is hard to avoid. Scary to think the industry’s solution is to develop another antiviral pesticide to combat the dangers of water contamination.

  • justme

    I wonder why the workers who pick and or handle these items on the farms don’t get sick and act as a heads up on the contaminations ?

  • Charzie

    Am I the only one who reads stuff like this and just wants to pull out my hair? How could we de-evolve to such a pathetic state and think we are so advanced? It just boggles me!

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      I know, Charzie. It is sad. Thankfully we know what is going on to some extent, and can make informed decisions.

  • Cole Magbanua

    Dr. Greger, I am having trouble finding information on Monk Fruit as a sweetener. I dont see it listed on your site. Any information would be appreciated.

    • Chris Hartley

      There have been a number of posts over the years asking for information on Monk Fruit – it would be good to see something on it.
      (try this query in google
      monk fruit

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Hi, Cole! Thanks for reposting this question. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the literature on sweeteners like monkfruit, stevia, and erythritol? I couldn’t find anything in pubmed on monkfruit! Anyone else have any studies? We’ll look into this, please give me some time…

      Thanks again,

  • apprin

    Having been a fifth generation farmer and now an vegan who grows much of his own food, I feel inclined to make an observation and comment. I was raised on a traditional farm upon which used crop rotation between production years for maintenance of organic content. We also included livestock in our rotation. This was before the tidal wave of genetically modified seed and other “progressive” trends in modern agriculture. I have been poisoned by transdermal absorption of concentrated herbicide and have seen the results of livestock waste used to enhance commercial (chemical) fertilizers. When spraying anything on a crop, the water may contain raw, undigested fecal matter that will most certainly result in a risk to consumers; however, we should remember that spraying contaminated water into the air and sunshine is also one of many manners in which organic contaminate are removed from water (or at least rendered harmless). Just to make an exaggerated point … After water containing fecal contaminates has been sprayed onto a crop, if that water is allowed to dry and be exposed to air, rain, dew and sunlight, at some point, those contaminates will have been rendered completely harmless. This, of course, depends upon several factors, such as: How concentrated was the contaminate in the water being sprayed? What type of contaminate was present in the water? At what stage of biological digestion was the contaminate when it was mixed with the water and how long was it mixed before spraying? How long after spraying has the contaminated water been exposed to air and sunlight before harvest? A big one: Has it rained or has heavy dew volatized between the spraying process and the harvest? There are so many variables that can either mitigate or magnify the effects of contamination that we must rely largely upon luck of the draw when making a purchase. Personally, I am quite fearful of today’s agricultural products, for numerous reasons. It would be quite nice to believe that a operator who has several hundred acres to care for could conceivably put his shadow on each plant and assure that all processes took turn in an orderly and proper manner, most beneficial to consumers; however, the reality is quite different. I personally grow enough organic food for a family and can care for each plant accurately and properly, but even this small operation is so demanding that if I attempted to add to my operation, it would be impossible to manage. Considering all of the variables, I fully understand how a perfect storm of contamination and follow-up circumstances can so easily result in deadly consequences. Indeed, it takes a perfect storm of prudent operating and good luck NOT to be infested and possibly sickened by contamination.

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Love the post! Thanks, appin. I can only speak to my previous tiny garden in DC. It was nice being able to check every plant with my own eyes, but even then I was not abel to produce everything I needed. Perhaps we need better education on farming, finding neighborhood gardens, and ways to dig-up our own yards?

      • peseta11

        John Jeavons and colleagues have repeatedly shown that a plot 40×100 feet can feed a family of 4 comfortably, and 1 person fully, without external inputs like fertilizers or pesticides. His major book, How to Grow More Veg…, has gone into 8 editions so far. Other books, some well-written for lay people, are being published all the time; and Jeavons’ nonprofit Ecology Action puts out bulletins to help optimize nutrition.
        And John Jenkins’ book Humanure, whose 3rd edition is online, solves the poop problem at several levels, though not the corporate.

  • Dommy

    After the outbreak and recall of *organic* raw spinach a few years ago we quit eating it uncooked. All our organic vegetables are washed but also steamed now — for safety’s sake as well the nutrient enhancement steaming affords.

  • Kris Trader

    Dr. Gregor, how does eating organic protect you from this? I know the spinach didn’t do it, but organic farming does not mean vegan farming. The cows, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, ducks and who know what other animal used in organic fertilizing do. As do the humans harvesting the processing the crops. Here an article that might also shed so light on how organic spinach can become contaminated by e-coli.

  • Dommy

    Relevant short article worth reading. It’s not just pesticides.
    “The Down and Dirty on Manure and Food Safety”

  • Darryl

    There may be an advantage to mechanically harvested vegetables (eg. much baby spinach these days, organic or conventional, is untouched by human hand).

  • GaryS

    I soak my baby spinach or any veggie that I suspect may have crap on them in a pot of vinegar and water for about an hour before I have them for lunch. It also perks them up a bit if they are wilted.

    I drain the pot into a jar and put it back int he frig for the next day. I use the same solution for about 5 days before I start fresh again.

    Vinegar can be used to remove certain pesticides and bacteria from your fresh produce. Of course, you don’t need apple cider vinegar for this—any basic white vinegar will do. Gayle Povis Alleman, MS, RD recommends a solution of 10 percent vinegar to 90 percent water as a bath to briefly soak produce.3 Just place your veggeis or fruit in the solution, swish it around, and rinse thoroughly. Just don’t use this process on fragile fruits (like berries), since they could be damaged in the process or soak up too much vinegar through their porous skins.

    • peseta11

      Gary, some people alternate, in either order, vinegar and food-grade peroxide solution to kill possibly-harmful as well as beneficial bacteria.
      A comprehensive approach would include what I haven’t yet seen, a sketch of how/why Shiga-toxic E. coli are evolving in such numbers in industrial agriculture.

  • James

    Dr. Greger ‘n co… thank you for all your fine work.
    The article raises issues, but what do you recommend we do as a response?
    e.g. I noted in the comments below one reader suggests a 10% vinegar solution.
    I myself do a vigorous wash of my veg before consumption.
    I think many would appreciate and benefit from what you regard as best practices for handling fresh veg to be consumed raw.
    Many thanks!

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Hi James. I decided to put together a list of “best practices” so to speak, on my Q&A page. See if this helps?

      Thanks for your feedback!


    Hi Dr. Greger! I was wondering if there is any information out there on the effect of fracking water being used to water crops in California?

    • Joseph Gonzales R.D.

      Hi Matt. Thanks for reposting. I am not too familiar with “fracking” water use. This is an article that refers to a few studies. This Harvard resource may be the best I’ve found. Here are 41 other studies on “fracking and water” that may be useful. I am not sure about watering in California but some mention “Drinking water while fracking: now and in the future” and “Detection of water contamination from hydraulic fracturing wastewater: a μPAD for bromide analysis in natural waters.”