Saturday, September 23, 2006

What is Popeye going to do?

We’ve been told not to eat fresh spinach (regardless of where it comes from: restaurants, supermarkets, vegetable stands, even if its organic) until the source of the current E. coli virus is figured out. At least 157 people in 23 states have been affected (according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.)

Those who die of complications of E. coli usually die of kidney failure.

Most at risk are individuals with weaker immune systems: children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

It seems that the culprit behind the current outbreak is irrigation or floodwater that is infected (with feces.)

Besides the obvious cost of human life (and human health) I’m worried about this on so many levels.

- This is a huge blow to spinach growers and producers (growers in the Salinas Valley are plowing their crops under. I’ve seen the photographs – fields and fields of beautiful, green leaves are being buried. What a colossal waste.)

- This point, above, means that workers (many of them migrant workers) will not get paid.

- Fear could make consumers stop buying other leafy vegetables, as well as anything that comes in those ultra convenient, pre-washed bags of salad. In other words, the implications in the industry are still to be determined.

- Washing the spinach doesn’t help. Not even dousing it with chlorine or dipping it in bleach, as the bacteria is absorbed from the root and resides in the inner tissues of the plant. The solution implies a profound change in agriculture practices and is not in our hands.

- Spinach consumption in the United States had been increasing. In a country in the grip of an obesity epidemic, this is a tremendous setback.

- Vegetable processing plants routinely wash lettuce and other vegetables in chlorinated water to kill E. coli and other bacteria. I don’t know about you, but my naïve reaction to this was - WHAT? My vegetables are washed with CHLORINE?

Granted, chlorine is a disinfectant, but it’s also a health hazard and may trigger asthma in children. Among adults it has been linked with other health problems, including bladder and rectal cancer and may increase the risk for coronary heart disease. (My source on this last paragraph is Andrew Weil.) Yes, I’m grateful to chlorine for protecting me from E.Coli and for keeping my pool clean. But are there not other alternatives? Must I eat it?

- The prospect of a food-safety scare has a domino effect. Raw almonds are being plowed under as well. The dairy industry is under intense scrutiny.

We can only hope this forces an improvement on us. We need to better inform ourselves about what we put in our mouths and where it comes from. Stringent practices in the agricultural industry must be established (feces coming into contact with food typically consumed raw? Come on!) We also need to be responsible in our use of antibiotics and chemicals. First do no harm – right?

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