Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food
Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food - Production Still Image

If you feel like ruining your day, check out Netflix’s horrifying new food documentary Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food.

You’ve likely heard of the all-too-common E. coli outbreaks from romaine lettuce and spinach that seem to crop up every few years. But did you know what causes those outbreaks?

This reporter didn’t, and it’s so much worse than I ever imagined.

You won’t want to touch lettuce at all after hearing what this doc has to say about the American food system — and the same goes for peanuts and chicken.

If you want to know the most shocking details about America’s food systems, from meat and poultry to peanuts and produce, read on.

1. Poisoned — The Horrifying Cause of E. coli Outbreaks in Lettuce

As the documentary aptly puts it, it’s not the lettuce’s fault when E. coli ends up on its leaves. It’s because of the lettuce fields’ proximity to factory farms. In these concentrated food-growing areas such as Central Valley, California, and Yuma, Arizona, farm animals like beef cows are often housed across the street from spinach and romaine fields.

So while the farms are totally separate and may be under completely different ownership, they share irrigation streams, which can sometimes become contaminated with fecal matter from the cows. When that happens, the contaminated water is sprayed onto the spinach and romaine fields, thus contaminating them with cow manure. And if even just one of the cows happens to have the most dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria —  E. coli O157:H7 — in its system, then that irrigation water could contaminate any number of lettuce plants.

Even if the lettuce is triple-washed, as is often advertised on plastic packaging, the only way to kill E. coli bacteria is to cook it — and these lettuces are typically eaten raw.

So how do you avoid potentially life-threatening E. coli poisoning? Well, many of the experts interviewed in the documentary simply avoid romaine lettuce altogether. But if you still want to eat it, food safety lawyer Bill Marler, who was interviewed in the documentary, recommends avoiding bagged and lettuce altogether and suggests buying plastic-free, whole heads of lettuce instead and washing it yourself at home.

Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food
A still from Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food showing lettuce fields being watered courtesy of Netflix

2. These Hamburgers Killed Children

Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food opens with a throwback to one of the most famous and tragic E. coli outbreaks in U.S. history: the Jack in the Box outbreak of 1992 and 1993. Before lettuce was the main culprit of E. coli O157:H7, it was found at the source in beef products.

The Jack in the Box outbreak occurred when the company failed to enforce food safety protocols and served undercooked hamburgers in Idaho, Washington, California, and Nevada. Hundreds of people were sickened by the burgers, which contained E. coli that had not been cooked out. Four children died as a result of the bad hamburgers, and Jack in the Box paid out over $50 million in settlements to the victims.

As a result, there was a huge crackdown on E. coli in beef products. Now, it’s pretty rare to find E. coli in beef — but not so rare for spinach and romaine.

Also Read: What Happened to Stephanie Ingberg From Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food?

3. When Peanut Profits Cost People’s Lives

In a particularly shocking case of corporate negligence, Peanut Corporation of America had to cease its operations after it caused a huge Salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009. Just like the hamburgers, hundreds of people fell ill and nine people died according to The Guardian.

The source of the Salmonella outbreak was poor sanitation in the peanut processing plant, whereby rodent droppings contaminated the peanut supply, the documentary explains. Peanut Corp. was found responsible for knowingly shipping out Salmonella-contaminated products and forging producing testing documentation to hide positive Salmonella test results.

The result was among the biggest food product recalls in U.S. history.

Peanut Corp. owner and CEO Stewart Parnell was convicted of several charges including fraud and conspiracy and was ultimately sentenced to 28 years in prison.

4. It’s Legal for Companies to Sell Salmonella-Contaminated Chicken

One of the most unsettling revelations of Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food was that, unlike products that are eaten uncooked, it’s perfectly legal for companies to sell raw chicken products in grocery stores that are contaminated with Salmonella.

Why? Because of a 1974 case called American Public Health Association v. Butz, in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that it’s the consumer’s responsibility to thoroughly cook their own poultry, not the responsibility of the chicken producer to ensure its product is pathogen-free.

“In this country, if you buy poultry from any grocery store, regardless of the brand that you buy, your primary assumption should be that it contains pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter,” Mansour Samadpour, Ph.D., CEO of IEH Labs in Seattle, Washington said in the documentary.

The filmmakers had 150 samples of raw chicken from different brands and grocery stores tested at Samadpour’s lab and found that 17% were positive for Salmonella.

Marler petitioned the USDA to ban several types of Salmonella in raw chicken products.

A text card at the end of the documentary reads, “After receiving Marler’s petition, the USDA decided to ban Salmonella in some chicken products. But the problem is far from solved, as Salmonella is still legally allowed in most chicken products sold in the U.S.”

Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food is now streaming on Netflix.

Main Image: Meat being inspected in Poisoned: The Dirty Truth About Your Food – Production Still Image courtesy of Netflix