Accidentally harvested weed alongside spinach caused hallucinations in Australians

Neighboring crops are being destroyed as a precaution.
Ameya Paleja
devil's trumpet.jpg
Devil's trumpet

RNMitra/iStock 

Testing has identified a toxic weed as the cause of hallucinations in nearly 200 individuals who ate baby spinach in Australia, South China Morning Post reported. The weed known as devil's trumpet or devil's snare was accidentally harvested and packed along with baby spinach at a producer's facility in New South Wales.

The mishap came to light after people across four states in Australia reported symptoms of hallucinations after consuming products such as salads and stir-fry mixes that had been sold at multiple brands of retail outlets in the island nation. Food Standards Australia issued a recall for these products with an expiry date of December 28.

Individuals consuming the culprit experienced symptoms such as dilated pupils, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth and skin, blurred vision, and fever, in addition to hallucinations and delirium - a lack of awareness of one's surroundings. Some needed medical attention and were rushed to emergency departments as the contaminant made them feel sick, The Guardian said in its report.

The devil's trumpet in baby spinach

At first, the contaminant was thought to be a herbicide or another chemical. However, after analyzing the source of the products across multiple retail brands, the investigators identified Riviera Farms in Victoria as the common provider of baby spinach to these outlets, making it easier to identify the culprit.

Even as investigations were underway, experts suspected the presence of a weed that could have resulted in such an outcome. In the early stages of their growth, these weeds also appeared leafy green and could have been indistinguishable from the baby spinach leaves.

The investigators then zeroed in on devil's trumpet, also known as thornapple or jimsonweed, which was accidentally harvested with the spinach leaves and packed for supply to retailers. Riviera Farms is now destroying neighboring crops as a precautionary measure.

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What is the devil's trumpet?

The plant, whose scientific name is datura stramonium, grows vigorously and is poisonous as it contains tropane alkaloids, which can lead to illness or even death. Authorities have warned people against seeking out recalled products for recreational purposes since they are potentially deadly when consumed.

The incident once again brings the spotlight on climate change which has been responsible for floods in Australia. This is the third summer in a row where the phenomenon of La Nina has brought heavy rains to regions like Australia and caused droughts in North and South America.

Months of rain and flooding in the country can cause weed seeds to move into areas where they haven't been present previously and then germinate in these areas. Australian farmers have been facing an unprecedented challenge of an explosion of weeds in their farms and will need to figure out ways to avoid such contaminations in the future.