Thursday, October 4, 2007

Spinach, that dreaded killer

Image from Suburbancowboy's flickr stream

Ah, spinach. It turned Popeye from a week-kneed fool swooning over his beanpole of a sweetheart, Swee'Pea, into a swaggering ass-kicker. Rip open a bag of the stuff, shovel it in and you too, can feel its goodness coursing through your veins, transubstantiating into sheer virility and lifeblood! Oh, but wait. I forgot. Spinach'll kill you. I know, because USA Today told me so. There's even a heartrending gallery of the victims of spinach, that leafy green serial killer, just in case you weren't frightened enough and happened to forget about how deadly spinach is now that a year has passed since THE OUTBREAK.

Now, I'm not trying to cheapen the deaths of five people as a result of consuming contaminated spinach. It's terrible that such a thing could happen. But before we start rifling through the fridge in a bug-eyed panic, rooting out spinach wherever it may lurk, let's think about this for a second.

Image from JimmyMac210's flickr stream

The article makes much hay about the contaminated spinach's origins in the same 2.8-acre plot in San Benito County, CA. Also mentioned is that this 2.8 acre "farm" yielded 1,002 pounds of spinach that then wended its way through the usual channels through the packers, distributors, grocery stores and into the refrigerators of its unsuspecting victims, who are duly commemorated with a gory rundown of their demise. Mass hysteria ensued. Articles like the USA Today's screamed headlines of death and destruction at the hands of spinach.

Consumers felt betrayed by spinach - previously considered the most salubrious of salad munchables, it was now poison. Where before, consumers were snapping up those conveniently pre-washed bags of spinach, they were now dropping the habit like a hot sack of shit. Now, the California Leafy Green Handler Marketing Board wants to implement a certification system to impose a system of "Good Agricultural Practices" on producers throughout the state because sales still haven't recovered from the hit they took last year. I'll let the Community Alliance for Family Farmers speak to the merits or lack thereof of this regime, since they're certainly more expert on this matter than I.

But what these two phenomena - media alarmism and a heavy-handed regulatory response - have in common is that they miss the point. It is extremely unlikely that spinach is going to kill you! In 2005, Americans consumed 680 million pounds of spinach and spinach consumption has been trending steadily upward, so it's safe to say that in 2006, it must have been at least slightly more than that. That's 1,002 pounds of bad spinach in over 680 million pounds! That's not even half of one percent of the total spinach supply.

I was working on an organic farm when news of the e.coli contamination broke, and people would come by the stand at the farmer's market and eye our spinach with a mix of dread and skepticism, as if botulism was just going to leap out and strike them dead where they stood. That is just irrational. We're talking about fresh spinach, harvested the day before, kept cool and brought to market less than 24 hours after it was picked. We're also talking about spinach grown on a diversified farm with aged compost produced under stringent standards, in soil that has a healthy population of microorganisms to compete with deleterious bacteria. Not spinach that went through all kinds of hands in a processing facility, bagged and trucked 2,300 miles to Wisconsin. Plus, we're talking about SPINACH, people! It's good for you. Why would you extrapolate the news about packaged spinach onto all leafy greens?! Ma'am, put those tongs down. That's spinach you've got there. Don't eat that! It'll kill you! Instead, eat an Oreo pizza from Domino's. That's much better for you and won't lead to kidney failure. For crying out loud!

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