Snakes and lettuce: shoppers in Australia find venomous snake in Aldi fresh produce bag

 After finding the baby pale-headed snake, Alexander White had a troubling thought: ‘What if the snake has come from something else?’

Snake in lettuce
Sydney resident Alexander White discovered a juvenile pale-headed snake in a two-pack bag of cos lettuce from Aldi. Photograph: Alexander White

A Sydney couple received a fright when they discovered a rare venomous snake in a bag of supermarket lettuce – but recovered and later used the fresh produce in a salad wrap.

The juvenile pale-headed snake, Hoplocephalus bitorquatus, was tucked into a two-pack of cos lettuce which Alexander White and his partner, Amelie Neate, purchased from an Aldi supermarket in Sydney on Monday.

“It was moving around and flicking its little tongue out,” White said. “It was actually its tongue which let me know it wasn’t a giant worm. I would have been more comfortable with a worm, to be honest.”

The reptile was about 20cm long and appeared to have been sleeping peacefully in the lettuce in the supermarket’s refrigerated grocery cabinet until White picked it up, carried it around the store, then jostled it in his backpack for the 10-minute bicycle ride home.

“We didn’t have a trolley because neither of us had a dollar coin so we were just carrying it – in retrospect that kind of freaked me out,” White said.

The snake emerged as they were unpacking their groceries at home. They called wildlife rescue organisation Wires and were advised the snake was possibly a baby eastern brown – one of the most venomous and aggressive species in Australia.

Snake in lettuce
An expert told the couple the snake was ‘medically significant’. ‘I thought that meant it had medicinal properties,’ said White. Photograph: Alexander White

But after an extensive amount of snake photography, it was identified as a pale-headed snake, a species that a snake expert told the couple was “medically significant”.

“I thought that meant it had medicinal properties,” said White. “Apparently it means that if you are bitten you have to go to hospital pretty quickly.” They bite repeatedly when provoked, said Neate.

According to the Australian Museum, pale-headed snakes are a “shy but nervous species, easily agitated if cornered”. There have been no recorded fatalities, but the museum states “an envenomation can produce some unpleasant symptoms, including severe headache, blurred vision, localised pain, and abnormal bleeding”.

White said the juvenile snake was quite cute. He and Neate spent some time videoing it and conducting video calls between the snake and their children, who were away for school holidays, while awaiting expert assistance.

They also checked the rest of their groceries for errant wildlife after realising the lettuce bag was open at one end.

“I had a moment where I thought, what if the snake has come from something else?” White said. “So I kind of rustled through everything trying to find evidence of other snakes. But it looked quite at home in the lettuce and after it had exhausted itself looking around it went back inside the lettuce and fell asleep.”

The snake and lettuce were moved to a Tupperware container “but we were opening the lid a bit because we were worried about it running out of air”.

A snake handler from Wires arrived at 10.30pm to retrieve the animal, which was transferred to a heated container. With the help of Aldi, they traced the origin of the lettuce back to Toowoomba, and are attempting to organise transport home for the snake.

Wires left the lettuce behind and White ate it for lunch.

“I have eaten the lettuce,” he said. ‘“I washed it thoroughly. There were a couple of things that I had determined to be snake poo but I washed that off and had a salad wrap today. People always say ‘wash your lettuce’ and I think I’ve been guilty in the past of not washing my vegetables, but I think the lesson from this is to always wash your lettuce.”

“And also check whether your bags of lettuce are open,” added Neate.

Aldi told Guardian Australia the snake would be released into the wild.

“We’ve worked with the customer and the team at Wires to identify the snake’s natural habitat, which is certainly not an Aldi store,” a spokesperson said. “We thank Wires for their support on this.”

Aldi said it was working with the produce supplier to “investigate how this incident could have possibly occurred”.

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