If Popeye has taught us anything, it’s that spinach can turn you into a submarine, have you flying through the air like a rocket and beating wild animals in unarmed combat. A few unlucky consumers have found out the hard way that the popular brassica vegetable might actually give you those powers, or, at least, convince you that you have them.
There have been more than 160 Australians reporting “hallucinatory” effects after consuming potentially contaminated spinach.
The veggies have been confirmed to have originated from a single farm in Victoria, with at least 20 people hospitalised in the state following consumption. A further 90 reported feeling unwell in NSW, with more than 30 of them seeking medical attention. Eleven potential cases of spinach intoxication have been reported in QLD, with at least one child being hospitalised.
Australia’s biggest supermarkets, including Coles, Woolworths, and Aldi, all issued urgent product recalls on items containing spinach on Saturday across all states and territories except Western Australia and Tasmania.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has advised people not to consume certain spinach products and to seek medical attention if they notice any unusual symptoms after eating products containing spinach.
Industry body AUGVEG has urged Australians to keep supporting local vegetable producers as the issue appears to be fairly isolated and largely under control.
“Given the affected products have originated from a single farm, and all affected products are being removed from shelves, Australian consumers can be confident in other spinach and leafy salad products that are currently available for sale, which are unaffected by the recall,” AUSVEG chief executive Michael Coote said.
“We have spoken to growers who have experienced reduced orders and drops in sales, who are not even in the same state as the source of the recalled spinach, which is an avoidable situation that hurts the entire industry.”
So, what exactly is causing people to trip out after trying to be healthy? Here’s what we know so far about what might be causing the problem.
Why Is Spinach Making People Trip?
According to FSANZ, the issue is being caused not by the spinach itself, but by another plant material that has somehow gotten into the spinach supply chain.
The effects of consuming this stowaway veggie include delirium, hallucinations, dilated pupils, a rapid heartbeat, a flushed face, blurred vision, and dried mouth and skin.
The products in question are those using Riviera Farms baby spinach, the growers at the centre of the problem. These include:
Riviera Fresh – Riviera Farms Baby Spinach.
Fresh Salad Co – Fresh and Fast Stir Fry.
Woolworths – Chicken Cobb Salad and Chickpea Falafel Salad.
Coles – Spinach, Chef Blend Tender Leaf, Baby Leaf Blend, Kitchen Green Goddess Salad, Kitchen Chicken BLT Salad Bowl, Kitchen Roast Pumpkin, Feta & Walnut Salad, Kitchen Smokey Mexican Salad, Kitchen Egg and Spinach Pots.
Riviera Farms have said that Costco are also a direct customer of theirs.
Since news broke on Thursday, December 15, Riviera Farms announced that they had begun testing their plants for weeds that have gotten into the mix “which can have health consequences if consumed.”
me googling where to buy the hallucinating spinach pic.twitter.com/HMfPvbERzO
— Leonardo Puglisi (@Leo_Puglisi6) December 17, 2022
Dr Brett Summerell, Chief Scientist at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, has told The Guardian that he believes the weedy culprit is “likely to be a nightshade.”
“When young, they are just a few dark green leaves which is probably not that much different to spinach. You’re harvesting all these leafy greens now at a very young age, sometimes it can be quite difficult [to identify].”
AUSVEG has also confirmed that the plant is a “leafy” green plant that has made it through the harvesting and packing process without being identified.
“It’s not the spinach itself that is causing this,” Coote confirmed.
What Is the Plant Making People Trip?
As of Wednesday, December 21, Riviera Farms have announced that the plant contaminating their product was thornapple.
“Together with VicHealth experts we have confirmed today that the spinach was contaminated with a weed called thornapple,” they stated.
“The investigations have not identified any other potential chemical, herbicide or other types of contaminant.”
This confirmation chimes with earlier suggestions from Emma Germani, President of the Victorian Farmers Associaton, who said that she had spoken with the farmers on the ground who “identified a weed that is in larger numbers than they expected.” She told the ABC that the farmers suspected the weed was thornapple. Thornapple, also known as jimsonweed, devil’s snare, or devil’s trumpet, is known scientifically as Datura stramonium.
Datura stramonium is part of the nightshades, or Solanaceae, a broad family of roughly 2,700 species of flowering plants that include herbs, vines, shrubs, and trees. Some are good eatin’, and include potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes, and chillis, whereas some are highly toxic. Many produce alkaloids, a class of organic chemicals that includes things like morphine, nicotine, and cocaine.
Solananceae Datura is a genus of plants containing multiple species that produce the alkaloids scopolamine and atropine. These are both “naturally occurring deliriant” chemicals with ‘anticholinergic’ effects, including hallucinations and delusions, dizziness, pupil dilation, a dry mouth, a racing heart, and hot flushes. Datura plants have been used in traditional medicine for centuries due to their psychoactive properties.
Riviera Farms have said that no other product has been affected by this supply chain error and that, as a precaution, they are destroying spinach crops in neighbouring fields.
Agriculture Victoria includes thorn apple in its list of “state prohibited weeds” and says that the plant is found commonly throughout the state, “particularly in the irrigated cropping areas close to Melbourne.” Riviera Farms is located roughly three and a half hours from Melbourne.
Riviera Farms have said that they will conduct an independent audit of their farm before production restarts.
“By the time that Riviera Farms baby spinach is re-introduced to market it will be the safest, most audited spinach supply in Australia,” they have said.
“As a company that has been supplying quality produce without incident since the 1880s, we are confident we can quickly restore supply and thank our clients for their strong support”.
What It’s Like to Eat Contaminated Baby Spinach
Although there have been a lot of jokes online, experts have warned people not to try and track down the recalled products or go out and eat weeds looking for a cheap high.
“There’s a whole lot of really horrible health issues,” Summerell has said. “Whether it’s a mushroom or whether it’s these sorts of weeds, if you don’t know what you’re eating, don’t eat it.”
Datura is not considered a ‘recreational’ drug and is not what you want to take if you’re just looking for a bit of fun. It can have highly variable levels of psychotropic alkaloids within the plant and can easily be fatal. Datura has commonly been used as a poison throughout Europe and India.
Children as especially susceptible to Datura poisoning which is a problem as the plants grow abundantly throughout Australia. Thankfully, no one has died from eating the contaminated spinach, however, NSW Health has said that a number of children in Sydney have presented with “severe illness.”
The online drug resource Erowid describes Datura as having a psychological effect for eight-to-18 hours, with a two-to-three-day hangover. Experience reports on Erowid from people who have intentionally taken the drug range from ‘had a pleasant sleep’ (at low doses), to true incomprehensible insanity for 24 hours or more. Headaches, diarrhoea, vomiting, intense dry-mouth, incoherence, and even comas are not uncommon with this plant.
Just dropped a tab of spinach
— Pup Fiction (@jjjove) December 17, 2022
“I ran outside into my shed in the backyard and started talking to myself, and after an hour or so I ran out of the shed with this scared sh*tless look on my face and fell down, and crawled back into the house, into the bathroom and … was trying to drink out of the toilet,” one user reports.
“The hallucinations were accompanied by delirium and confusion, which made them seem real and like I wasn’t really tripping. This stuff truly is the devil’s weed.”
One user on Reddit detailed their own experiences of eating the contaminated spinach in Queensland and said they “tripped balls – 0/10 don’t recommend.”
“I had the baby spinach in my dinner and went almost straight to bed because it was late. I thought I was in sleep paralysis and having night terrors or fever dreams.
“I was also shouting in my sleep and thought I sleep-walked. I put it down to working too much recently, but it was a really, REALLY unsettling experience and that didn’t really make sense,” they reported.
The user said that it took them a week to work out what had happened to them after reading an article about the issue.
So, yeah, if you are looking for a cheap and easy way to have some fun over New Year’s, there are probably much better candidates out there than contaminated baby spinach.