Solving the Spinach Scare

In the midst of the media frenzy over E. coli-contaminated spinach, there's a fact that few people are talking about: the supermarket isn't the only place to get the stuff.

It's hard to believe, given that our constantly replenished supermarket shelves are constantly replenished with pre-washed and pristine greens, as if packaged by elves. With gift-wrapped spinach always for the taking, who would want to bother looking anywhere else for salad fixins?

But sustainable agriculture advocates beg to differ.

"If there ever was a reason to shop local, this is it," says Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, a home gardener and food blogger from Syracuse, N.Y. The latest contamination scare makes it "more critical than ever to eat closer to the source," adds Baskerville-Burrows. "If we patronize smaller, local farms and something goes wrong, we can trace it back directly to the producer."

What's more, the coverage of the E. coli scare has been a bit like watching a new CSI spinoff where the good guys of "CSI: Food Safety" are tracking the source of the contamination and tackling the bad guys.

Of course, in all seriousnness, the FDA wants to solve the mystery and get to the source of the E.coli contamination, as it's become a public health situation involving 21 states. Its diligence, however, is being met with the enormous, complicated web that is American industrial agriculture. To wit, 31 brands of bagged spinach, all packaged under the corporate umbrella of Natural Selection Foods, the non-organic operation of Earthbound Farms, of San Juan Bautista, Calif., (and the largest organic grower in the country), have been recalled. Still with me?

In spite of the scare, there's perfectly good spinach to be had -- and it's not canned, frozen or pirated. You just have to wait for the high sign from Mother Nature.

In fact, spinach, a cool-weather crop, soon will make its fall debut at farmer's markets and in CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) boxes, depending on where you live.

Baskerville-Burrows said that her love for spinach and desire to eat it year round was a call to action, so she started growing it herself. While she waits for the spinach to harvest, she's eating "lots of chard, red Russian kale and collard greens."

Mark A. Kastel, a farm policy analyst from Cornucupia, Wis., is also willing to wait for the fall spinach to arrive in his local farmer's market. "There are plenty of greens I can buy today, not necessarily spinach, because it's a cool weather crop," says Kastel, who runs the Cornucopia Institute there. "It will be available in Wisconsin soon and for much of the fall."

Buying locally and seasonally, says Kastel, is a "chance to feel a connection with the earth and the people who are involved in their food." This is the "polar opposite of a farm that has 26,000 acres of production," referring the acreage owned by Earthbound Farms.

Greens from a local farm, says Kastel, "are probably picked one or two days before being sold," compared to the highly mechanized process of its industrial counterparts, which may be picked two weeks before arriving in supermarkets around the country.

Kastel acknowledges the trade-offs involved -- buy locally and you don't have the convenience of washed greens at any time of the year; buy industrial and you miss out on the community-building, fresher, and, in his opinion, more nutritious product.

Heinz Thomet, of Next Step Produce in Newburg, Md., argues that the choice over how and where we buy our food is a matter of priorities.

"People do all kinds of research to buy a plasma TV," asserts Thomet, who sells his vegetables at FreshFarm Market at Dupont Circle. "If you care for your well being, you will spend the same amount of time finding out how your food is grown."

When asked what consumers can do, Thomet talked about building relationship with local growers. "Come and visit your local farmer's market," he says. "Chances are better that you're going to be safer."

By Kim ODonnel |  September 19, 2006; 1:27 PM ET  | Category:  Food Politics , Food in the News
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all true, but at the dupont circle farmers market this past weekend, none of the veggie growers were selling their spinach--one in particular said they had brought some to a market earlier in the week and seen no interest in it because of the scare.

Posted by: devra | September 19, 2006 01:54 PM

One problem with the California spinach operation is that many farms will grow the produce and then ship it to one large processing plant where it's cleaned, dried and packed. Similar to the problems with ground meat when the meat from many cows is ground together or with restaurant foods when, say, many eggs are beaten together then cooked as separate servings.

I've read that even if the problem came from non-organic fields, those connected to Earthbound are ones being transitioned into organic. They're using organic techniques but can't call it organic till 3 years have passed.

Posted by: Karen | September 19, 2006 02:47 PM

I am one of the site authors on the Eat Local Challenge with Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows. I just posted a blog entry to that site on the spinach issue. Leafy greens are a real challenge for locavores since most of us can only get them in the spring and fall. However, once you taste the fresh, locally grown varieties, the bag stuff loses much of its appeal.

Expat Chef
eatlocalchallenge.com

Posted by: Expat Chef | September 19, 2006 04:09 PM

I have been reading all of this and am just amazed by the number of brands that come from one company. It's pretty gross, when you think about it. Regardless, it is what it is and until people realize the value of local markets and local produceers it will continue to get worse. My question is, Kim, in your research, do you think there is any chance the problem will be found in other lettuces anytime soon? I am pregnant and while I try to cook as often as I can, with local ingredients, going out to eat is pretty big on our to do list right now since there are so many other to dos. I am not eating spinach, but should I be concerned about other lettuces/leafy greens, as I know most restaurants use bagged greens and mixes from sysco and the like?

Posted by: Sailor | September 19, 2006 04:36 PM

I am a big fan of buying locally/sustainably, & do buy local greens at the Dupont market, but I have to admit--the bagged greens keep longer in my fridge. I go through a little routine when I bring the greens home of rinsing them, wrapping them in paper towels and plastic bags and putting them in the crisper, but if I buy the market greens on Sunday, they are usually wilted and maybe start to "slime" a bit by Wednesday.
I know the bagged greens get a shot of some gas to keep them fresh longer, but that IS a convenience when you're not going to eat a whole half-pound of greens (that is the smallest portion size they sell at the market) in two days' time.

Posted by: Margo | September 19, 2006 05:44 PM

The most upsetting thing is the pictures of the spinach crops being plowed under being shown on the TV news. The Crop could be canned and eaten safely(according to the USDA); canned for food banks, school lunch programs, etc. Or is this just another big agri-business tax write off?

Posted by: Paul Corsa | September 20, 2006 02:34 PM

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