Vegetable growers not the cause of sickness from spinach

I stopped in for an evening of fine dining at my favorite Atlanta restaurant last week and ordered my usual — a glass of pinot noir, bruchetta, Caesar salad, spinach manicotti, topped off with an apple postada for dessert.

To preface this, based on my Southern heritage, my dislike for coffee, turnip greens, pecan pie and much of anything fried, including green tomatoes, can best be described as a genetic flaw. The same explanation goes for my affinity for red wine, broccoli, spinach and most anything baked or steamed.

The explanation as to why Maggianos Little Italy restaurant no longer, hopefully temporarily, serves anything that contains spinach left me wondering just how many Americans share my food server's, once known as waiters and waitresses, view of farmers.

Blissfully unaware of yet another farm-based crisis, I asked her why the restaurant no longer serves spinach. “The farmers are growing spinach that has e. coli in it, and it's making people sick, even caused some deaths,” she explained.

Unwilling to let her explanation go unanswered, I asked for her mailing and e-mail address so that I could send her some information about farmers and soil-borne diseases. Fortunately, my wife was with me, so our very attractive food server took my request as something other than a dirty old man's attempt at flirtation.

If this particular well-intentioned food server reads her mail, electronic and otherwise, I doubt she will continue to blame farmers for the lack of spinach on the menu at Maggianos.

I don't know a lot about food-borne diseases. My only first-hand knowledge comes from a three-day hospital stay thanks to a bout with campylobacter. Campy, pronounced ‘camp’ causes problems with humans who eat insufficiently cooked chicken or fish — among a few other sordid transmissions.

I likewise don't know a great deal about organic farming. However, sans a few hydroponically grown tomatoes and sweet potatoes, I think ALL the crops I've ever seen grown were grown organically. Unfortunately, organic farmers took the initial, and unwarranted hit for growing e. coli tainted spinach.

If organic means grown without the safeguards provided by farmers and regulated by the USDA, EPA and seemingly by the third cousin of every person ever employed by the U.S. government, then I don't want any organically grown food. The recent e-coli-containing spinach did not come from organic farms. In fact, it very likely came from a processing plant, not a farm.

I don't eat vegetables, organic or inorganic, that haven't been properly processed or prepared. I fully understand that nutrient value is lost when vegetables are peeled and/or cooked. I likewise understand the untenable relationship between bacteria and heat above 200 degrees F or higher.

I am grateful that Maggianos is looking out for my health, but in reality had they served me spinach manicotti, I am certain e. coli 157 and other harmful bacteria would have been destroyed in the cooking process.

Farmers and farming are getting the blame for the unfortunate sickness and death caused by e-coli tainted spinach. I haven't checked a bag of spinach lately, but I doubt it instructs people to “eat me raw and uncooked.” Most chicken products do come with a warning against eating improperly prepared meat products.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s the most common disease of chickens was Salmonella pullorum, most commonly referred to as ‘white dysentary’. Likewise, one of the leading killers of Americans in that era was dysentery. Vineland Labs in New Jersey, and subsequently, a number of other poultry vaccine labs identified the problem, wiped out Pullorum Disease, virtually eliminating it as a problem for chickens or people in the U.S.

If the American public would accept irradiated fruit and vegetable products, virtually all the food-borne pathogens that cause human illness would be eliminated — and done so safely as the poultry industry erased Pullorum Disease. Until that process, or one equally as safe and effective, is adopted, the only option to avoid soil-born diseases in vegetables is to cook them.

In the meantime, encourage consumers to read further than the headlines, and don't blame farmers or farming for food-borne diseases. Better yet, encourage consumers to eat more U.S.-grown food products, but do so safely.

The sad reality to all the recent spinach hype is that U.S. spinach growers will see a decrease in sales — just like peanut growers feel the hit when a new case of allergic reactions makes the national news.

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