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As of late September, tainted spinach had sickened people in 25 states across the U.S. The outbreak was primarily a supermarket industry event, although the potentially tainted spinach could have crossed over into foodservice. FDA identified one probable source of the problem as Natural Selection Foods. The San Juan Bautista, CA-based company packs under the Earthbound Farms labels and about 40 other labels, several of which are distributed through foodservice channels.

On the surface, the problem was quickly contained. Food and Drug Administration officials were able to pin down the source of the tainted product (spinach grown in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties in California), recall it and spread the word to the public. The damage to date: 175 cases of illness due to E. coli, 93 hospitalizations and one death. The very young, the very old and those having a compromised immune system are the most vulnerable to infection.

The investigation is now concentrated on nine farms in these three California counties that supply leafy greens to Natural Selection Foods. The FDA made it clear that spinach grown elsewhere in the U.S. was safe, as was all frozen and canned spinach. So it's, mostly, back to normal for spinach growers and packers, or will be soon. Prior to this event, prebagged spinach sold at the rate of 500 million pounds per year.

So where does it all leave operators, who routinely purchase prepacked spinach and then serve it to others?

The initial response among operators, of course, was to get rid of any fresh spinach on hand. That included any sauce or dish in which spinach was an ingredient, even though cooking spinach to 170 degrees kills the E. coli bacteria. Demand for spinach items in restaurants fell to zero.

But life goes on. Operators then got on the phone to their distributors seeking substitutes: i.e., spring mix without baby spinach leaves or other leafy green options to use in salads mixed in-house or in other dishes.

In Las Vegas, The Diego Mexican restaurant in the MGM Grand, for example, now serves red, yellow and green chard in place of the braised spinach side dish that accompanies its chicken mole dish. Other restaurants chose arugula, turnip greens, mustard greens and/or watercress to replace spinach as their go-to leafy green. Bottom line: it's pretty easy to substitute for spinach.

Which solves your spinach substitution problem. But what are the contamination possibilities with these other options? After all, the prebagged spinach that became contaminated had been triple-washed before bagging, primarily because it's a low-growing crop whose leaves often contain grit. If three washings didn't get the job done for spinach, what's the safety level of the substitutes?

FDA says it's about the same. Successive rinsings reduce the number of microorganisms on fresh produce by as much as 90 percent, but won't get rid of all E. coli microorganisms if they are already on the produce.

It's not a waste of time. Extra rinsing does a great job ridding your produce of the kinds of bacteria that cause it to spoil in your walk-in. And pesticide residues largely disappear, too.

The lesson of the spinach/E. coli outbreak for operators, and for FDA, is that E. coli has to be nipped at the source. Letting it get onto food and then trying to remove it later is not the way to go.

Which raises the question: How come it's at the source in the first place? Since E. coli is found in cattle (and human) intestines and is spread by contamination from fecal material, how did this get into the spinach fields?

As it turns out, FDA has been on this particular case since 2004, when it helped develop the 2004 Produce Safety Action Plan. This initiative is meant to minimize the incidence of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of fresh produce. It also developed the Lettuce Safety Initiative as a response to E. coli incidents in lettuce. Spinach wasn't part of that effort, but it is now. As you might imagine, the California Farm Bureau Federation is all over this issue as well.

What have all these experts found out? Well, the FDA's Brackett pointed the finger at growers (in a very understated manner) by noting that the use of manure as a fertilizer for produce such as spinach that is typically consumed raw is, as he put it, not in keeping with good agricultural practices. "It's something we don't want to see," he says.

Boy, we can all agree on that.
So what kind of leafy greens should you order for next week? We'd suggest you start by asking your distributor sales rep or, maybe better, the produce buyer back at your distributor's headquarters, what they can tell you about the leafy greens they're showing on their list. The buyers, especially, have a lot of answers and are up to date on what's coming from where this week, and how it was grown and handled. Let them run interference for you on this important food safety issue. Chances are it will put your mind at rest. And, we hope, those of your customers.

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