What we can learn from the spinach E. coli scare.

Snapshots of life at home.
Sept. 28 2006 4:47 PM

Leafy Green Nightmare

What we can learn from the spinach E. coli scare.

On the scale of food virtue, a hamburger from Jack in the Box rates low while fresh spinach rates high. That difference is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the current E. coli scare, which has parents across America ridding their refrigerators of frozen vegetable lasagnas and grimacing over how all food suddenly seems suspect. Unlike the people who were stricken after eating fast food in 1993, this month's spinach victims were trying to eat well or feed their children a nutritious meal. Who doesn't feel for the mother whose 2-year-old died, perhaps from spinach she mixed into a fruit smoothie to coax him and his sisters to eat their vegetables? School officials in Oshkosh, Wis., are patting themselves on the back for not serving spinach in the cafeteria. This is not the leafy, healthful vision of dietary reform that I want for my kids—or would want, if only I could get them to eat anything green and leafy.

But the spinach scare is an opportunity of a sort, too, for reform. Spinach leaves carried the E. coli that has sickened 173 people and counting, but they didn't generate it. For that, blame bacteria that grow in animals, probably cattle—a reminder of how interconnected our food web is. Bad practices in the farming of livestock can make vegetarians sick, too. The scare also exposes the weakness in a mass processing-and-distribution system that collects leafy greens from hundreds of farms and mixes them together before spitting them out packaged in plastic baggies. So much for feeling superior by shopping at Whole Foods, champion purveyor of bagged salad. If you're not ready to stop feeding your family fresh spinach (or other leafy greens, really), then the best solution is more radical: Eat local. Now if I could just figure out how to do that without turning over my life to the pursuit of grocery shopping.

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So far, government inspectors haven't found or haven't explained the source of the spinach-born E. coli. But the problem lies in three California counties in the Salinas Valley—Monterey, Santa Clara, and San Benito—that produce 60 percent of the country's spinach. The nation's salad bowl turns out to be a pretty disgusting place. The Salinas and San Benito rivers and their tributaries course with agricultural runoff, including cattle waste from dairy farms. These waters are deemed "impaired" under the Clean Water Act, and farms in the region don't irrigate from rivers. But sometimes, flooding spills water over the rivers' banks and into fields. Another possible source of the E. coli is manure-based fertilizer, which some growers use (and which, amazingly, only organic farms are forbidden to use in raw form). Whatever the precise cause, the Salinas Valley has now been the source of nine E. coli outbreaks traced to spinach and lettuce since 1995. We know that its farming practices are making us sick.

There's also a likely explanation for why illness spread quickly across the country. Spinach has taken off in popularity since the industry figured out how to sell pre-packaged baby spinach. Sales of bagged salad have risen 14 percent a year in the last decade, to $3 billion annually. To produce the bags, processing plants take greens from different farms, put them through three different chlorinated baths, dry and seal them in plastic, and then ship them to a market near you. The chlorination doesn't get rid of E. coli: To do that, you need to heat the leaves and treat them with an organic acid, which would probably make them go limp. So, by mixing greens from different farms without treating them for contamination, the processing of bagged spinach spreads E. coli once it's present in a particular field.

Bagged salad is wonderfully convenient. But it also represents the downside of big-business organic farming. Writer Michael Pollan explains this best in The Omnivore's Dilemma, recognizing the improvements to soil and water but also ruing the losses of large-scale organics—the blow it has dealt small farmers and the commitment to "whole" rather than processed foods. Following this month's scare, some food-safety experts recommend forgoing bagged baby spinach in favor of traditional bunches of the plant in its adult form. That means more work in the kitchen but less association with the E. coli outbreaks of the last decade. I'm sorry to give up bagged salad. It buys me an extra five minutes with my kids every night. But I confess that the bags have always seemed too good to be true to me. They say "triple washed," but you wash the contents anyway or feel guilty.

Harder than giving up bagged greens is contemplating a commitment to buying only local produce. If you live in a big city, you already know the obstacles: There's a farmer's market somewhere, but it's not convenient or nearby, and you have to go to the supermarket afterward for all the things you can't buy there. I think about the gas and time that it will take to do this two-stop food shopping and get a headache. And since I'm not about to eat iceberg lettuce for months, buying local would mean going without salad for long stretches. For a few years, my husband and I belonged to a winter community-supported agriculture group in Connecticut. We were supporting a local farm. We felt extremely virtuous. We also had 10-pound bags of turnips to dispose of. And no spinach or lettuce.

In the wake of the E. coli disaster, food-safety experts have been pushing for more regulation—more money for government inspectors to patrol produce, tighter rules for water quality and workplace sanitation. By all means, clean up the fields. But here's what I also wish for: a grocery store, within a 10-minute drive of my house (OK, I'd take 15), that sells local produce whenever possible and tells me where the rest of the fruit and vegetables come from so I can decide when to break the eat-local rule. This store would forgo silly luxuries like tasteless strawberries in January. It would sell the staples I need for my kids' school lunches (soy butter, whole-wheat bread, granola bars, and those kid-sized yogurt containers). It would favor free-range meat and poultry and eggs. Oh, and be home to a great bakery, too.

Stores like this must exist. But market forces (or even local community forces) haven't produced enough of them. Maybe the spinach crisis will tilt in their favor by spurring us to ask more questions about where our food comes from. I hope so, because I don't want to take comfort in my children's failure to eat spinach or cross another healthy food off the list.

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