Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca urged citizens not to panic amid an increasing number of food poisoning cases due to spinach consumption.
The number of patients poisoned from spinach mixed with toxic herbs has risen to 196, Minister Fahrettin Koca said on Tuesday, adding that there was no need for panic as none of the cases were life threatening.
Koca said all patients were located in Turkey's northwestern provinces, namely Istanbul, Edirne, Tekirdağ and Kocaeli. The minister said only 21 patients remained hospitalized and that all instances were considered food poisoning cases.
"What we actually see is the patients come in with (complaints of) food poisoning but what they all have in common is that they have all consumed spinach. The patients were admitted with symptoms of dry mouth, flushed skin, nausea, vomiting and blurred vision – common side effects of atropine overdose. The problem seems to be weeds growing around the same area mixing with the produce," Koca said. The minister urged citizens to carefully inspect any produce they buy and thoroughly wash them.
Wild plant is probably the culprit
Murak Kapıkıran, an official from the Istanbul Chamber of Agriculture Engineers, said a wild plant very similar in appearance to spinach might be the likely culprit. While officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry on Monday said weeds from the Solanaceae plant family were suspected to be the cause for the poisoning, Kapıkıran said it was a wild plant called atropa belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade. Both plants contain the naturally occurring chemical atropine.
Kapıkıran said both spinach and deadly nightshade grew around the same times and were visually similar, which could have easily fooled farmers, causing them to be mixed up.
"The other option is adulteration. Since they look very similar, nightshade might have been intentionally mixed to increase the harvest. And the amount needed to be consumed to show poisoning symptoms is somewhat substantial. We hope this is not the case," he said. Kapıkıran urged more inspections for produce, adding that a potential mix-up could happen in the future again with other leafy greens.
A food technology expert urged citizens to wash their spinach with baking soda instead of vinegar, which is a common habit in Turkish kitchens. "Vinegar can make some pesticides and herbicides more potent. Therefore it is important to use baking soda instead of vinegar. The consumer should first let spinach sit in water with baking soda and then rinse it," Sibel Bölek said.