Spinach: The Aftermath

As spinach creeps shamefacedly back onto grocery store shelves, officials are looking more suspiciously at the causes of the E. coli outbreak—and articles about it are getting a lot more interesting. This week, Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon provides an excellent analysis of what we can learn from the whole debacle, while New York Times reporter Marian Burros offers a roundup of smart recommendations to farmers, consumers, and supermarkets.

When the whole episode began, like many people I speculated that agricultural runoff had something to do with it. Bazelon marshals some good evidence for that theory:

The nation’s salad bowl turns out to be a pretty disgusting place. The Salinas and San Benito rivers and their tributaries course with agricultural runoff, including cattle waste from dairy farms. These waters are deemed “impaired” under the Clean Water Act, and farms in the region don’t irrigate from rivers. But sometimes, flooding spills water over the rivers’ banks and into fields. Another possible source of the E. coli is manure-based fertilizer, which some growers use (and which, amazingly, only organic farms are forbidden to use in raw form). Whatever the precise cause, the Salinas Valley has now been the source of nine E. coli outbreaks traced to spinach and lettuce since 1995. We know that its farming practices are making us sick.

Burros also quotes a UC Davis biologist and an FDA official hypothesizing a link between manure and the outbreak. Unfortunately, the latter agency has so few inspectors keeping an eye on the produce industry that it hasn’t really looked at the manure issue before: As Burros reports, “the F.D.A … has fewer than 2,000 inspectors for more than 120,000 facilities,” down from about 2,250 inspectors in 2003. “Even some high-risk foods are only inspected every two to four years,” she writes.

The government has its work cut out for it, but supermarkets and shoppers can help keep something like this from happening again, Burros reports: Everyone should treat produce as though it were meat, refrigerating it immediately after purchase and washing any surfaces that have come into contact with cut produce. (Washing won’t get rid of E. coli, of course, but it’s still a good idea for eliminating about 90 percent of fruit-and veggie-philic microorganisms.)

While Burros avoids any discussion of local- versus industrial-scale produce distribution, Bazelon concludes with a great point about the need for convenient grocery stores that sell local produce whenever possible and label the rest of their fruit and veggie offerings. I bet our poor writer Diane Mehta, whose quest for such a store led her into into all sorts of trouble at the Park Slope Food Co-op, would get behind that.