Sick of spinach

September 19, 2006

The country is full of uncontaminated fresh spinach, but it would be foolish at this point to eat any. An outbreak of E. coli in at least 20 states is probably traceable to one packager or even just one farm, but until that source has been identified, no fresh spinach should be considered safe.

There was a time when produce was local and seasonal, but that time, though lamented by some, is gone. The American grocery business is national in scope, and one of the benefits of that - and it's a major one - is the availability of all sorts of fresh fruit and vegetables, year-round. But it also means that if there's bad spinach in the system, it's a national problem. Moreover, every spinach farmer suffers from the voluntary nationwide recall, and based on past contamination incidents, it may take a long while to recover public acceptance.

California produces 74 percent of the country's spinach, and suspicion, at the moment, falls on the Salinas Valley, in Monterey County, where spinach farms are clustered and where problems with E. coli contamination in river water, which can flood the fields, have flared in the past.

Supermarket chains are clearing their shelves of bagged spinach and removing fresh spinach from salad bars, but this is a voluntary move on their part and perhaps inevitably there is some confusion. In Baltimore, the city Health Department has issued an advisory to all grocery stores, and inspectors are on the lookout for spinach as they make their rounds. But the onus, really, is on the shopper: Check for ingredients, especially on those bags of mixed salad greens, and stick to lettuce for the time being.

Cooked spinach, incidentally, should be OK if properly prepared, and that would include frozen and canned spinach. Popeye should have nothing to worry about.

One thing that always becomes clear with incidents like this is that the U.S. government does not have an army of food-safety enforcers. Much of the real forensic work when there's an outbreak of food-based illness is done by local health departments. It's a system that harkens back to an earlier era and that still works, pretty well, most of the time. It may not be sufficient if a real crisis ever shakes the food distribution business in this country, and now would be a good time to consider strengthening it.

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