ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

The After-Shock of Contaminated Spinach

If you're interested in what happened after contaminated spinach sickened people across the country two years ago, hop over to this must read by my friend Barry Estabrook at Gourmet magazine.

I've covered aspects of the spinach crisis before, but Barry goes further and looks into the environmental aftershock that has occurred from farmers seeking to put a protective shield around their fields, with no evidence that they're addressing the root cause of the problem.

In the name of food safety, they have scraped 30-foot-wide borders ofbare dirt around the edges of fields, set up poison-bait stations for ground squirrels and mice, installed eight-foot-high fences to exclude deer and other wildlife, ripped vegetation from creeks and ditches, and drained ponds and lakes or treated them with chemicals that kill every living thing in them. Creeks flowing into the Salinas River run brown with silty water polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. Piles of bleached, bonelike tree trunks and roots have replaced wooded groves.

“The science isn’t there to prove that deer are a factor, but farmers are being required to moonscape the habitat around their fields in the name of food safety,” says Bob Martin, general manager of Rio Farms, a 6,000-acre operation. “That’s amputating a person’s leg because they have a hangnail.”

I'd heard about these draconian measures from wildlife and small farm groups and knew it was ripe for a deeper look. Luckily, Barry did too. His article makes you think twice about what "food safety" really means, when it's regulated with a bulldozer.  Here's another observation:

Of the 12 recorded E. coli outbreaks attributed to California leafy greens since 1999, 10 have been traced to mechanically harvested greens bagged in large production facilities. The source of two outbreaks has yet to be determined. None have been linked to small farms selling to local markets.

After the jump are Barry's tips for avoiding pathogens:

Think Outside the Bag

· Cooking is the only way to kill bacteria in greens for certain, but there are some less drastic steps you can take to protect yourself.

· You’ve heard it a thousand times: Buy local; buy small. Packaged produce in the supermarket can be more than two weeks old. Produce from a CSA or farmers market packed in ordinary, unsealed plastic bags is most likely picked a day or two before you buy it.

· Buy whole heads or bunches of intact plants; precut edges provide a particularly easy point of entry for bacteria.

· Washing won’t get all the bugs out of contaminated bagged greens, but it can remove some surface bacteria.

· If you do buy prewashed, factory-bagged produce, look at the “use before” date. If it’s getting close, avoid the product. The longer it has been in the bag, the more opportunities for pathogens to grow.

· Never, ever eat uncooked greens from bags whose expiration date has passed, no matter how fresh they appear.