As cold creeps in, spinach fans might buy bagged stuff

October 04, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Now that it is OK to resume eating packaged spinach, are we going to be brave enough to try it again? The answer, in my case, is probably. The weather may make me do it.

I had spinach the other night for supper. My wife cooked some spinach we had bought at the Sunday morning farmers' market in downtown Baltimore and mixed it with fettuccine and pine nuts. As I enjoyed this dish, I thought about what the recent troubles with bags of California-grown supermarket spinach infected with E. coli reveal about our eating habits.

One lesson is that there are a lot more spinach eaters in America than I thought. The scope of the outbreak shows that raw spinach has become a regular part of many American diets. According to the Produce Marketing Association, each American consumed an average of 2 pounds of fresh spinach in each of the past three years. This, I think, is a big change from 10 years ago, when about the only spots where you could regularly find raw spinach were health-food stores in California.

The contaminated spinach episode also presents a contradiction. We ate more spinach because it is good for us. It's low in calories, high in vitamins, packs the antioxidant beta carotene and is pretty tasty. But now, because there is national appetite for raw spinach, the risk of illness presented by a contaminated batch is higher. We learned to like raw spinach because it was good for us. Now, we learn, it can make us sick.

This is not the first contradiction we have faced on the food front, and I am sure we will be able to navigate around it. We have, over the years, weathered worries about Alar on apples, mad cow disease in beef and pesticides on table grapes.

But as produce becomes a larger part of the American diet, it is, I think, going to be subject to more scrutiny and regulation. This incident has renewed talk in Washington about forming a single government agency to be in charge of food safety. Now those responsibilities are often split between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

Finally, much as I would like to depend on my garden or farmers' markets for my vegetables, our weather patterns probably won't cooperate. When the sun disappears and the snow falls, local greens suffer. The need for a national distribution produce system, flawed as it is, is a fact of modern life.

Last week I planted a couple rows of spinach and lettuce in my garden. They will probably keep me in greens until the first bad frost. But come winter, I will have to swallow hard and buy the packaged stuff.

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