The cleanliness, or arguably lack thereof, of fresh produce has been dominating the headlines in recent weeks.

A few months ago, issues around pesticides were raised again as it was revealed that many so-called “forever chemicals” or PFAs were found on the nation’s favourite fruit and veg.

Now, e.coli, most likely linked to salad in sandwiches, is becoming an unwieldy risk to suppliers as they quickly try to withdraw product from shelves before the bug travels any further.

But as the weather warms and Brits get ready to up their intake of fresh salads, more concern has hit the sector.

A new academic report from the University of Kent has found a water-borne and food-borne parasite, cryptosporidium, was found in over 17% of samples of prewashed vegetables.

What is cryptosporidium?

Cryptosporidium is a parasite that causes an infection called cryptosporidiosis, which has symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach pains and fever. Cryptosporidium is typically found in lakes, streams, rivers and untreated drinking water, said the study.

While it is a relatively small sample, the bad news is the parasite is chlorine-resistant, which means typical means of washing ready-to-eat vegetables will be ineffective. The only way to reliably remove the parasite is through boiling water or filtration. It is yet more evidence that consumers have to be super-careful about what they eat and take all available measures to keep themselves safe.

“Whilst our 2023 study cannot distinguish between live and inert cryptosporidium, it is nevertheless important in that the presence of cryptosporidium in prewashed vegetables could mean revisiting the sanitation methods employed by suppliers along the chain of production, such as improved hygiene measures during harvesting, processing, packaging, transportation and storage,” said research lead and reader in molecular and evolutionary parasitology, Dr Anastasios Tsaousis.

The FSA has said the study will “add to our evidence on food safety”.

How do you kill cryptosporidium?

“Cryptosporidium is more usually picked up from swimming in or drinking contaminated water, but occasionally you can get ill from contaminated food, including unwashed or unpeeled vegetables,” said Dr James Cooper, deputy director of food policy at the FSA.

He added that food businesses must have “processes in place to help ensure the food they sell is safe”, as well as providing clear packet instructions for consumers on whether product needs to be washed or not.

“If there are products on sale that are unsafe we will take action so consumers are protected,” Cooper said.

However, this study and the recent outbreak of e.coli raise questions on whether the processes that are in place in the supply chain are doing enough to eliminate risks. Clearly there are gaps in the system, and we are seeing the impact of those gaps on consumer health play out nationally. 

This latest academic study, while limited in scope, shows it is not just e.coli that we need to worry about. More needs to be done across the entire sector to ensure the fruit and veg on consumer plates is only offering health benefits, not health problems.