Don’t Eat Your Spinach

Over a hundred people recently came down sick after eating bagged spinach contaminated by the rare but potentially deadly E. coli 0157 bacteria.

One person died, according to the FDA.

But insight into this sickening has been hard to come by until today, when three excellent stories were published on the subject, the first linked above from the opinion section of the NYTimes.

Nina Planck reveals that this particular brand of E. coli is typically associated with cows eating grain, producing a strain of the bacteria that can stand up to stomach acid, and thus overcome human defenses that can handle the usual strains of the omnipresent E. coli without serious difficulty.

The good news is that there is a well-known solution for E. coli 0157:

In 2003, The Journal of Dairy Science noted that up to 80 percent of dairy cattle carry O157. (Fortunately, food safety measures prevent contaminated fecal matter from getting into most of our food most of the time.) Happily, the journal also provided a remedy based on a simple experiment. When cows were switched from a grain diet to hay for only five days, O157 declined 1,000-fold.

The bad news is that the present situation is unsustainable, according to Marla Cone of the LATimes.

The bacterium that has sickened people across the nation and forced growers to destroy spinach crops is so pervasive in the Salinas Valley that virtually every waterway there violates national standards.

At Grist, Tom Philpott  picks up the story from a different angle, looking not so much at the bacterium or its source, but at our desire for convenience, and the the scale of agriculture that feeds that desire.

I can see why pre-washed salad greens have grown into a $4 billion industry since 1986, when Earthbound Farm first sorted out the technology for keeping them fresh. It’s undeniably tempting to pluck a sealed bag of uniform greens from the supermarket counter and dump it right into the salad bowl, ready for a lashing of pre-made salad dressing.

But in doing so, you’re making huge demands on the environment. Even assuming organic production, consider that California salad greens consumed on the East Coast must be trucked across the continent and kept cool at a constant 36 degrees Fahrenheit. "At least given the fuel burned to get it to my table," Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, "there’s little reason to think my Earthbound salad mix is any more sustainable than a conventional salad."

I’m relieved to say that on this front, a neighbor got us into a CSA, so I need not fear my spinach. Or my lettuce. Or my zucchini. Or my tomatoes. Or my squash. Or my peppers. Or my beets…

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

5 thoughts on “Don’t Eat Your Spinach

  1. What if we just cooked the damn stuff and shut up about it?
    (Could even add a little or a lot of heavy cream, white pepper, gray sea salt. You know the drill.)


  2. True, but a lot of the facts that this contamination are bringing to the fore are really troubling. (For instance, that FDA inspections of produce have declined from about 35,000 a year in the l970’s, to about 5,000 a year now.) Meanwhile a whole new industry of bagged produce has sprung up, that is virtually unregulated…and potentially dangerous.

    I expect this story will have legs, as they say in Hollywood, and will I hope bring changes in the way produce in this country is farmed and distributed.


  3. Hi Kit,

    This was a discussion point at our recent garden club meeting in Newbury Park, because some of us use manure in our compost piles – I have two chickens. Sooo I googled
    “e coli persistance manure” and a bunch of authentic research stuff came up. 1057 is surprisingly persistant – 3 months in lettuce fields, 5 months in parsley, and it looks like chickens can carry it also. A hot compost pile will kill it, but I don’t know many composters that are so disciplined to maintain uniformly hot piles. Given all the cows all over California, free range and ghetto cows alike – how come we’re not all dead by now? There’s places in the central valley where the manure dust blows like fog during the summer (yes, yuck!).


  4. Wow–the bacteria can last for months on parsley and lettuce?

    Jeez. Reminds me of a story I just heard a couple of days ago on NPR about an infestation of bedbugs in NYC…which scientists say can last for up to a year on a single blood meal.


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