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How common is it to find a dead frog or animal in your salad?

A new study on the amount of creatures that slip into our produce may scare some salad eaters.
/ Source: TODAY

Frog legs may be a French delicacy, but a forkful of dead frog in one's salad greens is decidedly not.

Though shocking, finding a dead creature in a bag of prepared greens actually happens more often than you might think.

Daniel Hughes, a research associate with the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Illinois, recently conducted a review to find out how many "wild vertebrates" had been found in prepackaged produce over a 15 year period. The study, which claims to be the first of its kind, used data from Google and Bing to comb through digital media sources that reported when unwanted animals had popped up in people's leafy greens over the years.

Hughes and his team found reports of 40 incidents that occurred between 2003 and 2018 in which various news outlets posted wild (pun intended!) pieces about consumers opening bags or boxes of greens and finding a little pre-kiss Prince Charming (or rodent) nestled among the leaves. The majority of incidents involved conventionally grown produce, not organic.

According to the study, 30 of the 40 consumers profiled found amphibians and reptiles; including tree frogs, toads, lizards and snakes (most were dead, but some were alive). Most were discovered in bagged, boxed or pre-made salad greens, but one frog and one toad were found in bags of pre-cut green beans.

The remaining 10 cases involved six animals including rodents, birds and one Brazilian free-tailed Bat that sparked a recall from Walmart, all of which were found in boxed or bagged mixes containing spinach or salad greens.

"These [the rodents] were all found dead and several of which were simply mutilated body parts," the study reported.

Averaged out over the years, that's about 2.66 animals found per year. Though the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not track bagged lettuce consumption specifically, the trade publication Supermarket News noted that in 2018, Americans bought over $4.6 billion worth of pre-packaged salad, which means hundreds of millions of bags were sold last year. So, basically, finding an animal among your greens is very gross but it's also very, very rare.

So how do these critters keep finding their way into our food and is anything being done about it?

Hughes' research found that many of these animals slip into greens "because the methods employed to combat deer intrusions are very different from those used for birds or to those for rodents or amphibians or pigs. Because there is no single solution to exclude animals from growing fields, farmers must rely on approaches that work for certain animal groups (e.g., large mammals)." This is done at the expense of opening up crop to other types of creatures.

Another issue Hughes cited in the study was the general lack of oversight in how these reported incidents are tracked.

"Regardless, there are currently no established complaint systems to archive these incidents that are publicly accessible and if an incident is discovered before a customer purchases an item, they are kept private," he wrote in the study. "Even when incidents are covered by news outlets, which seems to be the only avenue for documenting these events, the response by food-safety professionals can be lackluster, especially if there is no clear link to a food-borne epidemic."

Birds and rodents are all potential carriers for foodborne illnesses like E. coli and salmonella, while certain frog species can warrant other health risks.

If you do unbox a salad and find an unappetizing extra, the main thing to do is not eat it.

"In terms of a consumer ever finding a frog or other amphibian in their packaged product, I would not recommend to consume the product just because there are certain types [of animals] that can be poisonous," Meredith Carothers, food technical information specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), told TODAY Food.

According to Carothers, there is a federal resource available to the public that allows people to file a complaint upon finding any kind of critter in their food. Whether the complaint is simply to document a type of frog found in a lettuce brand or to note an illness that resulted after consuming a product, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for all produce-involved complaints, which are handled by the administration's consumer complaints coordinators in every state. Those complaints are not made public, however, unless a recall issued.

According to Hughes' study, the data collected from those complaints isn't being used to put any comprehensive measures in place.

"The general lack of transparency for documenting incidents, and tepid response when incidents do occur, have contributed to the dearth of quantitative data on this human–wildlife phenomenon," Hughes said.

When asked by TODAY what happens when a consumer files a complaint, a representative for the FDA was not immediately available for comment regarding what protocols are in place.

In the meantime, before you start chowing down on those luscious lettuce leaves, take a few seconds to thoroughly inspect the contents for any creepy critters.

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify to the types of animals studied by Hughes in 2019 — they were amphibians, reptiles, birds and rodents.