Thursday, June 10, 2010

Unhealthy Spinach, Healthy Spinach

Americans love spinach. And we believe it is good for us. According to some statistics, teenage girls eat the least spinach, and women over 40 eat the most. Does this mean that we women must be undergoing some type of spinach epiphany somewhere between the ages of 20 and 40?

Most of the spinach we eat is grown right here in the United States. The U.S. is in fact, the world's second largest producer of spinach (China is well in the lead, with about 85 percent of the world's output). Most of what we buy is in fresh form. Whether fresh or frozen, we eat the bulk of our spinach at home.

For some reason, which always escapes me, a lot of my friends like their spinach raw - in the form of spinach salads. Of course, that leaves them more vulnerable to risks, since the cooking "kill" step is missing. Any bacteria (or parasites) in it, is going to end in us.

Remember that huge outbreak of food borne illness in 2006, caused by E.coli 0157 in bagged spinach? There have been some other smaller ones linked to spinach since. Most recently (in May, 2010) Salmonella bacteria were found in organic bagged spinach (no confirmed illnesses yet). Both of these instances originated in Salinas, California. True, there may well be animal-feces irrigation water being used, or, bacteria-carrying wild pigs running around the spinach patch. But the odds are, any problems in spinach that originate at the farm level, will be traced back to Salinas. After all, Salinas, California produces around 75 percent of the U.S. spinach crop.

Of course, if you eat your spinach cooked, you will be far less likely to come down with a nasty illness that originates in cattle or wild pig feces. But I have found few American restaurants - even those serving Italian food - that serve delicious cooked spinach the way I always ate it when working in Rome: delightfully covered in slices of roasted garlic, fresh lemon juice and olive oil. You may never eat a risky spinach salad again.

bon appetit!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Who's Right About the Salmonella?

We have had another one of those incidents. FDA's laboratories have turned up dangerous bacteria in a food product, and the responsible food company says that its own testing didn't find any. It happens all the time - peanut butter, spices, lettuce, ground beef...Who is right? Of course, we tend to believe the government (sometimes, that is) and we tend to distrust the profit-focused public-health neglecting food industry. But they could both be right.

In the case in May, 2010, the suspect product was bagged spinach, distributed by Organicgirl, based in Salinas, California. Organicgirl (slogan - "good clean greens") is a USDA certified organic company with a devoted customer base (just read the facebook raves). It not only has "mother earth" in charge, but even uses 100% recycled plastic. "Most" of the greens it sells come from California and Arizona (where do the rest come from? Mexico?) and it tries to minimize food miles (all the way to Alabama). It also triple washes everything (maybe even quadruple washing, if you count that extra spraying).

But on May 27 Organicgirl had to admit that just possibly, one of its products was contaminated by Salmonella bacteria - lovely bagged baby spinach. The spinach had been distributed to California, Oregon, Arizona, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Alabama. The Best-if-used-by date was May 22 (a full week earlier). The company statement read: "organicgirl raw product testing records for the relevant time period did not show the presence of any pathogens." But the FDA's did, so it had to recall some 336 cases of expired (very likely to now be consumed) spinach.
So what happened? My guess is the following - and I am only guessing. Very small numbers of Salmonella bacteria were present when the company first did its testing, so the tests turned up negative. But, over the next few days - maybe even weeks, while on the road and in the store, the bacteria multiplied. Maybe just 3 or 4 Salmonella in a bag had become 3,000 or 4,000 or more. By the time the FDA sample was taken (apparently from a store), there were large enough numbers of Salmonella bacteria present to be show up in the tests. The chances are that my theory is right.

The lesson for us consumers - the fresher, the better. If the bacteria are below the numbers needed for an infective dose - maybe 1,000 to 10,000 of them, we may not get sick. Check the dates.

Bon appetit!