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E. coli for Popeye

If you're a fan of bagged baby spinach, your next homemade salad could make you violently ill. The FDA yesterday warned consumers to stay away from the stuff, after several new cases of E. coli infection--almost certainly from contaminated bagged spinach--were reported in an ongoing outbreak that has killed one person and made at least 50 others sick.

While boiling the leaves could kill the bacteria, FDA officials are saying people should avoid the spinach altogether and throw out any bags they've already purchased (though unbagged spinach sold in bunches at your grocery store or farmers' market is fine). The problem is clearly with whichever processing plant or grower that produced and distributed all this spinach; officials haven't pinned down any brand names for sure, but the LA Times reports that one man has already filed a suit against Dole after falling ill. (The company's packaged salad also made nearly three dozen people sick last year.)

Produce contamination is scary business--especially in cases like this, where the greens are pre-washed and supposedly safe to eat as-is--and it is now linked to more cases of disease than poultry (which is notoriously bacteria-ridden). Among the likely sources of contamination is agricultural runoff, which can carry animal manure that naturally contains salmonella and E. coli.
The offending spinach was likely packaged in California's Salinas Valley, which supplies 74 percent of the country's crop and is known as "the salad bowl of the world." And with 2,200 dairy farms that provide around one-fifth of the nation's milk supply, California also happens to be the leading dairy state in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, it has a big, stinking manure problem--the EPA calls management of dairy waste one of the Golden State's "most pressing environmental issues."

How farms deal with doo-doo is a longer-term issue, but we consumers have a good opportunity to influence things right now: Bone up on this proposed animal-waste legislation and write your congresspeople PDQ. When it comes to veggies, I plan to stick with local, unbagged, unwashed greens, wash 'em myself--and maybe avoid the raw spinach for a while. The season's about over in my part of the world anyway. 


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