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Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006 07:35 pm

To eat or not to eat

Scary spinach shows why buying local makes sense

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Popeye must be bummed. Even though in the old cartoons he was always gulping down canned spinach, I like to think he would have moved on with the times and would now be eating it fresh.

My only exposure to canned spinach was in my elementary-school cafeteria, where it was a regularly featured item on the menu. Those lumps of khaki mush were truly disgusting, and I found it difficult to believe that they even belonged in the same food group as the freshly cooked bright-green spinach and spinach salads I ate at home.

Even so, I always felt a bit of gratitude towards Popeye. At least he made eating spinach seem cool, which made me feel a little less of an oddity. As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved spinach. While other children got sick eating too much candy or sweets, the only thing I ever ate in such quantity that it made me ill was my grandmother’s German-style spinach. If there was any left over, I’d eat it cold for breakfast the next morning.

My grandmother’s spinach is still a favorite, and I still eat the cold leftovers for breakfast. In fact, I like spinach in any form except that canned gunk.

But the recent Escherichia coli scare has the media warning us not to eat spinach. What are spinach lovers such as Popeye and me to do?

First let’s get one thing straight. The Food and Drug Administration’s warning, on Sept. 14, specifically targeted bagged spinach. That includes bins of loose spinach in groceries, which would have arrived in bags. What they’re really talking about is large-scale production. The contaminated spinach has apparently now been traced to a huge commercial operation that processes both conventional and organic vegetables and, even more specifically, to contaminated water used for irrigation or washing of the produce.

How did the water become contaminated? Experts are still trying to find out. Here’s what they do know: The strain of E. coli (O157:H7) that’s causing the current crisis is relatively new and more virulent than previous forms. First identified in 1980, it’s most commonly found in feedlot cattle, with about 40 percent of them carrying it in their intestines. Cattle are ruminants, which means that their natural food is forage (a.k.a. grasses).

Feedlot cattle, however, eat no grasses. Their diet is primarily corn. “Corn-fed” beef sounds wholesome, even desirable. It certainly is desirable to beef producers, because corn makes cattle gain weight rapidly and thus increases feedlot operations’ efficiency. Unfortunately that rich diet of corn also gives cattle a perpetually queasy stomach and throws their digestive systems out of balance, making them more susceptible to infections.

Looking at the big picture, it becomes clear that the ultimate culprits are large-scale production and distribution systems that dominate so much of the food we eat.

Food poisoning has always been around. The difference is the scale of the episodes. A few decades ago, most of the food consumed in any area was produced within a small radius. Any food contamination that occurred at the producer’s end was restricted to that area. A recent National Public Radio report commented that most were situations such as “the church social where everybody who ate Aunt Mabel’s potato salad got sick.”

Grocery produce is different today. Natural Selections, the California company targeted in the spinach E. coli outbreak, has 150 huge farms growing spinach that is all processed in one facility. As the NPR commenter noted, “Whenever you have one company putting out 26 million servings of salad at the same time, it’s as though 26 millions salads are being washed in the same sink.” If it’s contaminated, the result is widespread illness.

Some media reports omitted the “bagged” part of the FDA warning, leaving many consumers thinking that it’s unsafe to eat any spinach. They’re also confused about the “fresh” designation. Does that just mean raw? Is it OK to eat cooked spinach?

It is possible to kill E. coli by cooking contaminated food. Spinach is delicate, though, and cooking it long enough at a high enough temperature to get rid of the E. coli renders it sadly similar to that canned goop.

Locally grown spinach has no connection to the current E. coli outbreak. It’s been frustrating to farmers such as Jackie Simpson of Suttil’s Garden that so many media reports have failed to make the distinction. “I kept calling and calling the television station,” Simpson says, “but I just couldn’t get anyone to listen to me.”

Spinach is a cool-weather crop, grown here in the spring and fall. Frosts and light freezes don’t bother it; in fact, they actually seem to improve its flavor. It is usually locally available at least until Thanksgiving. If the season is mild, spinach can often still be harvested into late December.

In the dead of winter, when the ground is snow-covered and frozen solid, those experts will, with any luck, have eliminated the current E. coli crisis, and I’ll be glad to have bagged fresh greens. Until then, though, I’m sticking to the local stuff.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.

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