Mean and green

How spinach got so unfriendly

By
January 3, 2007

The country’s fall bout with E. coli bacteria killed three people, sickened 200, and prompted much anxiety over green vegetables. E. coli lives in the guts of cows, so what was it doing in bags of fresh spinach packaged in California and shipped nationwide? (We’re more accustomed, after all, to hearing about E. coli in fast-food restaurants, such as the recent Taco Bell outbreak in New Jersey.) Turns out that, while it might be possible to keep meat and veg separate in a TV dinner, modern agriculture isn’t quite so tidy.

In “Leafy Green Sewage” in the New York Times, food writer Nina Planck pointed out that although most E. coli is harmless, the kind living inside many cows isn’t. This strain of E. coli has evolved inside “the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms.” The nasty bug leaves the cows and enters rivers and groundwater, ready to pay a visit to nearby salad farms.

Cows used to eat grass, and could do so again, Planck urged: “There remains only one long-term remedy, and it’s still the simplest one: stop feeding grain to cattle.”

A rebuttal published in the paper by Daniel Akst claimed that eating has always been dangerous, and the tradeoffs of modern agriculture are worth the risk. “If you expect cheap, safe produce year-round, there’s some industrial farming in your future,” Akst declared.

Michael Pollan weighed in with “The Vegetable-Industrial Complex,” agreeing with Akst that consumer deaths generally lead to increased government regulation, which, in turn, squeezes small producers into joining the big conglomerates that, in their massive homogenization and distribution, caused the tragedy in the first place.

Emily Bazelon pointed out in Slate that the E. coli outbreak might serve not just as “a reminder of how interconnected our food web is” but encourage reform of the locally oriented variety, spurring consumers “to ask more questions about where our food comes from.”

Bill Buford agreed, writing in “TV Dinners” in the New Yorker that he found it depressing, to say the least, that the Food Network’s current lineup of shows promotes prewashed, precut, prepackaged foodstuffs as a way to save time, relax more, and, essentially, reinforce industrial agriculture.

“I couldn’t recall very many potatoes with dirt on them, or beets with ragged greens, or carrots with soil in their creases, or pieces of meat remotely reminiscent of the animals they were butchered from – hardly anything, it seemed, from the planet Earth,” Buford lamented.

Planck, it turns out, was right about the cattle connection; on October 13, nearly a month after the initial E. coli outbreak, Reuters reported that the deadly strain had been linked to a cattle ranch in the Salinas Valley. On the same day, CBS reported that feral pigs were the likely vector, connecting cows to spinach in their wanderings.

“Somewhere Popeye is crying,” commented a poster on the blog Accidental Hedonist.

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