We pay a small sum to eat the best the California harvest has to offer, and I've never chowed down so well in my life. Yesterday, my weekly "box" arrived with tomatoes, garlic, sweet peppers, little gem lettuce, Carnival winter squash, artichokes, strawberries, and.... SPINACH. Lots of beautiful, Popye-lovin' green leaves.
I live in Santa Cruz county, the heart of California organic farming, and many of my friends and neighbors have been affected by the recent e-coli spinach scandal. Much of what you have heard from the FDA, and the media, is unwashed bullshit, to put a bacterial spin on it.
I asked one of our farmers, Andy Griffin from Mariquita Farms, if I could reprint his story here about what is really going on in Spinach-Land:
Deborah Schot, a reporter from the L.A. Times, called me to ask for an opinion about the e-coli outbreak in prepackaged fresh spinach that has killed one person and sickened hundreds more.
And yes, I have an opinion. I think the F.D.A. employee that I heard on the radio yesterday urging people to play it safe and not eat fresh spinach is ignorant.
Although the victims got sick by eating spinach from a sealed bag it’s wrong to seize on spinach as the culprit in the controversy; it makes more sense to look at the processing and handling of pre-packaged greens in general.
Put another way, it’s the harvest procedures that were followed, the pre-washed claim made for the greens, and the bagged environment the greens are in that are the relevant issues, not the specific variety of leafy greens that were actually contaminated at some point during the harvest and post harvest handling. By fingering any spinach as suspicious, even bunched fresh spinach, the F.D.A. isn’t educating anyone, or solving the problem. They’re just spreading fear on a national scale.
The L.A. Times called me because I’m a farmer and I’m quick with a sound bite, but also because I have a background in the baby spinach and salad business. Back in the dark ages when I started farming organically people bought their spinach in bunches and their salad as heads of lettuce. My first career in farming was in the production of the then new baby salad greens and baby spinach. We harvested the crops by hand, washed them, and packed them loose in unsealed bags.
In 1996 my partners and I sold our company, Riverside Farms, to the company that became Natural Selections, which happens to be the company at the heart of the current controversy. Their packing plant was once the packing plant for our farm, though it was a lot smaller and less sophisticated back then. Our former label, Riverside Farms, was one of the labels pulled from the shelves this week. Ready Pac and Earthbound Farms, two of the other labels pulled, were labels that I once grew and harvested raw products for so, for me, this bad news has a personal angle.
When we harvested baby greens by hand at Riverside Farms the workers dipped their knives periodically in buckets of antiseptic solution to clean them. We were unsophisticated then, compared to the way the industry is today, but we knew that any bacteria on the knife could contaminate the wound in the leaf where it was severed from the plant at the moment of harvest.
We also knew that baby salad greens that were harvested by dirty knives were far more likely to break down quickly in the cooler, even after being washed, because the wash process, no matter how good, can’t really remove bacteria that has been introduced into the leaf by a dirty blade.
Riverside Farms had a state of the art wash line for 1995. but we went the way of the dinosaurs in part because we couldn’t afford to pay the escalating labor costs of a unionized crew of hundreds of salad cutters when our competitors were going to be harvesting tons of product cheaply with machines. Not long after we went out of business harvesting machines became the industry standard.
All in all, an argument can probably be made that the big harvest machines probably cut the product even cleaner than individual workers can, especially if some individual harvester is sloppy and careless. But, by the same token, if the cutting blade on a harvesting machine isn’t properly cleaned tons and tons of product can be contaminated by a filthy blade during the course of the day—not just tons and tons of baby spinach, but tons and tons of ANY PARTICULAR LEAFY GREEN VEGETABLE, ORGANIC, CONVENTIONAL, OR OTHERWISE, that is being harvested.
Let’s say some contaminated product makes it out of the field into the shed. The equipment in the large salad plant wash-line is all stainless steel, and the wash water that has been chlorinated to reduce bacteria levels. If the factory puts so much chlorine in the water that even potential bacteria pockets in the damaged tissue along the cuts of the leaves is killed the “fresh” salad greens will have been chemically contaminated into a swampy mess that smells like a municipal swimming pool.
(When I smell the odor of ammonia that comes out of the sealed bags of those nasty little carrot plugs that are so popular I want to gag. When the day comes that someone gets sick from eating them and the F.D.A. tells people not to eat any carrots I’m going to sue! Think of all the bunched spinach growers losing their shirts because some fool at the F.D.A. doesn’t distinguish between packaged spinach that’s “conveniently” been “pre-washed,” and a bunch of spinach that needs to be cut from the stems and cleaned in the sink before being eaten.)
If the wash line procedures manage to kill 99.9% of all the offending bacteria, there is still a real problem due to the tons and tons of greens being processed over a short period of time. Inevitably, a significant amount of contaminated product could go out to consumers.
A psychologist might be able to do a better job than I in telling you why so many people feel comforted when they see their food coming to them in sterile looking sealed plastic bags covered in corporate logos, nutritional information, legal disclaimers and “use by” dates.
“It’s convenient,” they say. It is true that the open piles of washed baby greens that were once the norm in supermarkets and farmers markets were vulnerable to post harvest/ post wash contamination. Those sneeze guards over the pizza parlor salad bar aren’t there for nothing.
But I’ll tell you that every sealed bag of pre-washed greens is like a little green house. The greens inside are still alive, as are the bacteria living on them. If the produce in the bag is clean, great, but if it isn’t the bacteria present has a wonderful little sealed environment to reproduce in, free from any threat until the dressing splashes down and the shadow of a fork passes over. Frankly, I think convenience is overrated.
When my partners and I sold our salad washing company we sold the assets, the equipment, the leases, the receivables etc. but we also sold the right to compete. For five years I was contractually obliged to seek a way in agriculture that didn’t have anything to do with my previous experience in baby salad greens.
I wasn’t sad to leave the big farm and the salad factory behind. Those years were fascinating for me, but stressful, and the more sophisticated everything became the more alienated I felt. I was out of my league. I turned to farmers markets and then, when that way of business didn’t prove to be sustainable Julia and I turned to the C.S.A. format, later joining forces with Stephen and Jeanne at Higher Ground Organics.
Maybe giving people a mixed box of seasonal vegetables that they have to wash and prepare isn’t “convenient,” the way shipping thousands of cookie cutter boxes of salad out of a factory door is. And maybe it isn’t “convenient” for our supporters to have to wash their carrots or trim the coarse stems off their chard. But that’s cooking, and cooking is a happy, healthy, balanced and therapeutic chore.
I will be curious to follow the news and see what the inspectors discover in their search. If it turns out that I’m wrong, and it was the spinach that was what gave shelter and sustenance to the e-coli—and the problem is not due to a slip-up in harvest or post harvest sanitary procedures on the factory farms— I’ll be the first to admit to ignorance.
But for now I’m going to call my seed dealer and order some spinach seed; it’s probably on special today, and it grows well in Hollister in the fall.
copyright 2006 Andy Griffin