Spinach Gets Green Light, But Where Are the Greens?

Wary consumers mean markets may only slowly restock shelves, experts say

FRIDAY, Oct. 6, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. health authorities have decreed that consumers can go back to eating fresh spinach, but that doesn't mean you'll find the leafy greens in every grocery store.

One California Congressman who tried to stage a spinach-eating news conference to demonstrate its safety canceled the event after a hunt for the product in local supermarkets turned up nothing, the Associated Press reported.

"Not everybody is carrying it yet, but increasingly it's coming back on the market," said Kathy Means, a spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association, who said she bought spinach at her local grocery on Sunday.

The issue is more one of demand, than supply, Means offered.

"Retailers will carry it when they sense their customers want it," she said.

"It's safe to eat spinach, but it remains to be seen if people are going to rush back to eat it," added Dr. Pascal James Imperato, chairman of the department of preventive medicine and community health at SUNY (State University of New York) Downstate Medical Center in New York City. "Essentially, we're back to normal [regarding] safety of supplies."

Health officials have narrowed the source of the E. coli bacterial infection outbreak to one processor, Natural Selection Foods, in San Juan Bautista, Calif. Federal agents have launched a criminal investigation of both Natural Selection Foods and Growers Express, searching for any evidence that the spinach growers sidestepped safe food handling practices.

On Thursday, state health officials in Idaho confirmed that the death of a 2-year-old boy on Sept. 20 was caused by tainted spinach. Kyle Allgood's death is the second one linked to the outbreak. The other victim was a 77-year-old Wisconsin woman.

One hundred ninety-two people in 26 states and Canada have been sickened by E. coli O157:H7 since the outbreak was first reported in mid-September, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Sept. 15, Natural Selection Foods recalled all of its spinach products with use-by dates of Aug. 17 to Oct. 1. Four other distributors, all of whom got spinach from Natural Selection, have also recalled their products.

Natural Selection processes fresh spinach for more than two dozen brands, including Earthbound Farm, Dole and Ready Pac.

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said consumers could resume eating fresh spinach.

"It may very well be that we may never be able to determine whether this occurred in the processing or the growing of spinach," Imperato said.

In the meantime, the CDC issued this advice to consumers who want to resume their spinach consumption:

  • Do not eat spinach products processed by Natural Selection Foods (see below for link to full list of brand names).
  • If you can't tell whether a particular brand of fresh spinach was implicated in the outbreak and the package has a "use by date" of Oct. 1, 2006 or earlier, don't eat it.
  • E. Coli 0157:H5 in spinach can be killed by cooking at 160 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds. If spinach is cooked in a frying pan, and all parts do not reach 160 degrees F, all bacteria may not be killed.
  • Don't allow raw spinach to contaminate other foods or food-contact surfaces.
  • Wash hands, utensils, and surfaces with hot, soapy water before and after handling the spinach.
  • Store fresh produce in a clean refrigerator at a temperature of 40 degrees F or below. All produce that is purchased pre-cut or peeled should be refrigerated to maintain both quality and safety.

More information

For the latest E. coli updates, visit the CDC.

SOURCE: Pascal James Imperato, M.D., Distinguished Service Professor and Chair, Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health, SUNY Downstate Medical Center, New York City; Kathy Means, vice president, government relations, Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del.; FDA statement; CDC statement; Oct. 5, 2006, The New York Times; Oct. 3, 2006, Associated Press
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