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September 27-October 3, 2006

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Baggin' on Spinach

By Stett Holbrook

THAT poop-borne microbe E. coli is back in the news again. This time, instead of tainting ground beef, ol' O157:H7 is contaminating fresh spinach and demonstrating anew how vulnerable and inherently flawed our centralized food supply chain is.

Eating leafy green vegetables is supposed to be good for you. Now, spinach traced to the Salinas Valley can kill you or at least give you really bad diarrhea. So far the outbreak has killed at least one person and sickened nearly 150 in 23 states.

The contamination has been linked to Natural Selection Foods, based in San Juan Bautista. The company has voluntarily recalled products containing spinach. Investigators are still trying to pinpoint the source of the bacteria and are focusing on Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties. State health officials recommend that consumers dispose of any fresh spinach on hand. Washing does not guarantee you'll get rid of the deadly bacteria.

When one big company supplies so much of the country's spinach, train wrecks like this seem inevitable. While there is no evidence that the outbreak was deliberate or malicious, the contamination makes it clear how vulnerable we are to a well-aimed biological attack on our food supply.

This E. coli outbreak is the latest of many. According to published reports, state and federal officials warned Monterey County spinach and lettuce growers and packers 20 times in the past 10 years to clean up their act because of repeated E. coli contamination. It's interesting to note that while no organic certified spinach has been implicated in the E. coli outbreak, organic produce offers no inherent protection against E. coli.

Now that I think about it, Natural Selection is a funny name for a food company. Natural selection was naturalist Charles Darwin's term for that elegant yet brutal law of the jungle known as "survival of the fittest." In a country that depends on industrial agribusiness and is regularly stricken by food-borne illness, you've got to be pretty fit to survive.

E. coli contamination is part of the risk of eating in America. The spinach story is big news because the contamination occurred in spinach instead of ground beef, the preferred hangout for E. coli. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 73,000 cases of E. coli infection and 61 deaths occur in the United States each year. That means E. coli sickens 200 people every day. But these facts don't make the news.

While we don't know the exact source of the bacteria, we do know a few things. The spinach that is sickening people is the bagged variety, pre-washed and pre-stemmed. Bagged spinach, as opposed to the twist-tied bundles of greens you wash yourself, is designed for convenience. But convenient food is highly processed food. Natural Selection receives spinach from scores of growers and then washes and bags it in giant production facilities. More hands and more processing can mean more chances for contamination.

It's telling that food safety experts recommend eating canned or frozen spinach as an alternative, replacing one industrial food product with another. Wouldn't a more effective alternative involve breaking away from the centralized food system that is forever choking in its own waste?

As of yet, there are no instances of small-scale farmers like those who sell at farmers markets or community supported agriculture programs being involved in the outbreak. These growers just pick their spinach and take it to market. There are no industrial rinsing or packing facilities. They leave the washing up to you.

Although even the most scrupulous farmer can fall prey to E. coli contamination, it's a whole lot less likely if it's grown by your local family farmer. I feel a lot safer eating spinach and produce in general that's treated like a food crop rather than as an industrial product that's bagged on an assembly line and shipped off to the supermarket.

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