Safe spinach?

I suppose we’d be remiss in our farm blogging duties if we didn’t comment on the current spinach ‘crisis.’ We’ve watched the news with interest this week as the country responded to the E. coli cases. We have been curious—along with the rest of the nation—about which step of the spinach bag process contaminated the product. Apparently, it could have been at any point, which has led to the complete recall of anything spinach related. The reaction has been so strong that Oregon Public Health officials are not willing to ‘exonerate’ any spinach at this time, even that grown locally and completely removed from the Natural Selection Foods company.

To us, this has been an interesting revelation of food’s underbelly. Maybe that seems like an odd way to describe it, but there is a reality to food production invisible to the consumer at the grocery store. Convenience foods, such as bagged spinach, are factory products, along with much of the meat and, of course, all of the processed foods we consume today. I think it’s easy to forget the many hands that have touched and handled our fresh vegetables when they come to us shrink-wrapped and clean (and labeled with fancy marketing graphics too).

In her book Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism, food activist and professor Marion Nestle discusses this seeming benign trust on the part of the consumer, even though food is not nearly as safe today as the food industry claims. She outlines the evolving decades long denial of food safety issues through political lobbying by the food industry. Although we have come a long way from the days of waterborne illnesses such as cholera, Nestle points out that food safety is still a very real issue in the United States, and one that is mostly ignored except during crises such as this one.

A significant difference between food safety issues in prior centuries and today is the mass centralization of our food supply. This is crucial in terms of epidemiology and contamination issues. In Safe Food Nestle primarily addresses this issue in terms of our meat supply, but it became apparent this week with spinach as well. When almost all of the bagged spinach in the country is coming from one processing plant in California, the fact that over 150 farms originally grew the spinach no longer matters. Through centralization, they all become guilty parties, and the United States finds itself suddenly without a seemingly safe or clean spinach supply—even though perhaps the original source of E. coli could have been in one five acre field out of hundreds.

The implications of the incident are, as you know, fairly significant. There is of course the illness, but also the economic repercussions for the farmers, who may not have been a part of the problem at all. Some of the smaller farms involved could very well be hurt beyond recovery if they can’t sell any more spinach harvests this fall. To us, these repercussions point out the biggest fatal flaw in a centralized food system as a whole: it is too easy to topple. All it takes is one piece of the complex puzzle to go awry for hundreds of farmers to lose income and hundreds of people (across the entire nation) to become ill.

This isn’t to say that a decentralized one-farm system is entirely removed from food safety considerations. Here at Oakhill Organics, we are very aware of the need for hygiene in our harvesting and washing processes, especially with our cut salad mix. The difference, however, is that if we lapsed, it would affect only us and our direct customers. The contamination could be easily located and dealt with.

We enjoy the security of being responsible only to ourselves. Since we direct market our vegetables to eaters, we have full power over our product and we are small enough scale to oversee everything carefully. Nestle also points out (as does Eric Scholsser in Fast Food Nation) that much of the important food handling in this country is performed by some of the lowest paid workers, many of whom are undereducated in handling issues. Again, there are many places in larger scale food systems where someone overseeing a step could easily underestimate the importance of cleanliness or process due to honest ignorance or lack of proper training.

I think the important thing to realize here is just how huge and unwieldy much of our food production has become. The spread of pathogens is almost inevitable in such a complex system, in the same way that complicated machinery eventually breaks down through use.

In the end, even though everyone wants to lay blame on one farm or one worker, the system is what should be questioned. Even beyond the problem of accidental contamination, in an age where terrorism is considered a real and constant threat to our security, why are we not paying more attention to our food security as well? Perhaps this way of talking about food sounds sensationalistic, but certainly no more so than our president’s speeches about terrorism. We see a disconnect between ideology and practical application.

Having said that, however, I hope that readers of our blog will not respond simply with paranoia or fear but instead with awareness and action. Our goal is not to scare but to arouse interest in an integral and daily part of our health: food and where it comes from. The very happy ending to the story is that local farms are still selling spinach at market to grateful customers.

And by choosing to buy outside of the vast centralized systems, these eaters are gifted a little more security in the short-term and a lot more in the long-term. They are supporting a decentralized system, one which has more legs to stand on in adversity and thus will continue to feed people despite problems in other sectors. Yes, they can eat a clean spinach salad for dinner tonight, but they also are building an economic system that will allow them to eat a safe foods next year, and the year after that, and so on. These are good choices. Safe ones, anyway.

Interested in learning more in light of the recent spinach contamination? Here’s a list of recommended reading on food safety and related topics:

  • Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism, Marion Nestle (2003)
  • Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser (2001)
  • Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan (2006)
  • Real Food: What to Eat and Why, Nina Planck (2006)
  • What to Eat, Marion Nestle (2006)
  • … Oh, and if you’re curious: we do have spinach growing in our fields right now, and it will probably be ready by next week’s market. See you there!

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