In September 2006, hundreds of E. Coli infections in the U.S. and in Canada were traced to spinach grown in California. Recent news reports suggest that the current crisis is over, but should we resume eating spinach? While the contamination was traced to one company, Natural Selection Foods in California, the reasons for the E. Coli contamination remain unknown.
Irrigation using contaminated water is the most popular theory. E. coli contamination is typically connected to some kind of animal waste (livestock or human). It could be cattle manure run off into irrigation systems. Another potential source is human waste from the port-o-potties in the spinach fields used by agricultural workers, or poor hygiene among workers sorting/handling the produce. Whatever the source, it is clear that this is an ongoing problem, because this latest contamination is only one of 20 dating back to 1995. Green leafy vegetables are the second leading source of E. coli infections – beef is the second.
What can you do if you still want to eat spinach? Extensive washing of the produce does not guarantee safety as E. Coli can actually reside inside the produce. Rather than give up the nutritional benefits of spinach (Vitamin A & C, folic acid, calcium, iron, fibre and many other phytonutrients), cooking it is the best protection. Frozen and canned spinach are not implicated in this outbreak. It goes without saying that spinach salad presents as health risk.