Why it’s vulnerable to salmonella, other bacteria

Why it's vulnerable to salmonella, other bacteria

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Editors’ note: This story is an updated version of an article published on May 9, 2018.

Spinach fans are dealing with two recalls of their favorite vegetable in as many days.

But how do these seemingly innocent little leaves turn dangerous? 

Whole Foods Market is recalling prepared foods items, including salads, pizza, sandwiches and wraps, sold in eight states, due to concerns about salmonella contamination.

Whole Foods said this was a result of a recall by Long Island, New York-based Satur Farms of specific lots of baby spinach and mesclun in New York and Florida the day before. That’s because of fears of salmonella contamination following routine sampling by the two states’ agriculture departments and markets, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website.

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Satur Farms could not be immediately reached for comment.

Salad fans ran into a similar problem twice last year with two large romaine lettuce recalls. Then, the pathogen was E. coli, but like salmonella, it travels in feces, according to experts.

We’ve sent men to the moon. Many of us carry tiny computers in our pockets. So why can’t we keep spinach safe and clean? Here are some reasons it’s so vulnerable and why tracking down the source of a bacterial outbreak can be difficult.

America hearts fresh vegetables

Thanks to the national wellness trend embraced by healthy millennials and aging baby boomers, the consumption of fresh vegetables, as opposed to frozen or shelf-stable varieties, is on the rise. Adding to that is the growing popularity of salad-centric restaurants, like Tender Greens and Sweetgreen, and the increasing inclusion of salads on the menus of fast-food chains.

According to global market research firm Mintel’s most recent data, 70.4 percent of vegetables sold in the U.S. in 2017 was fresh produce, up 15.5 percent from 2012, but growing at a 48.6 percent clip since then is fresh-cut salad, now 11.6 percent of what’s in stores. Fresh veggies are forecast to grow eight percent by 2022 and fresh-cut salads, 30 percent.

Blame it on Mother Nature

Fields where produce is grown are subject to the whims of Mother Nature and her animals. Fruits and veggies grow in dirt and can be fertilized with manure. Bugs and birds fly around. Animals may run wild through even fenced fields — or defecate in rivers and lakes used to irrigate nearby farms. Growing out in the open means lots of opportunities for bacteria to enter the picture.

“Stuff is grown in nature outside. It can’t be bacteria-free, virus-free, parasite-free,” said Keith Schneider, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida. “We do our best. The farmers jump through a lot of expensive hoops to make the food as clean as possible, but nature can intervene.”

Spinach is naturally unprotected

Unlike some of its fruit and vegetable brethren, spinach has nothing to keep it safe. The lack of rinds and peels — which you’d find on, say, a watermelon and a cucumber — gives bacteria countless entry points. A bunch of spinach has tons of nooks and crannies for the nasty stuff to hide, making leafy greens far more vulnerable than other thinly-skinned, yet solid and easily washed produce, like tomatoes.

“The population is choosing to eat foods inherently more risky,” said Matthew Stasiewicz, a food safety expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Realistically, there’s not an activity in life that carries zero risk.”

Distance can make the problem grow faster

The days of getting produce year-round only from nearby farms are long gone. As the national food supply becomes more sophisticated, we’re able to grow food at a central location and then pack it, preserve it and ship it around the U.S. 

Despite the ease that social media and 24-hour news cycles bring to spreading warnings about outbreaks, following the food from point A to point E remains complicated.

Convenience can lead to illness

The extra phase of processing the spinach — yes, even the triple-washed kind — provides more chances for bacteria to sneak in. The issue then becomes that even spinach that’s pathogen-free when harvested can run into trouble if the equipment in the packing house it runs through is contaminated. Bacteria-tainted leaves from a previous run leave behind traces on the belts that the new leaves could pick up, according to experts.

It’s a raw deal

Foods you eat raw, like lettuce, miss out on a cooking phase that can kill bacteria. What the industry has dubbed “the kill step” withholds a key opportunity to get rid of food poisoning-causing particles. For example, applesauce, which is subjected to heat as part of the preparation, is far less likely to pose a problem than a raw Red Delicious apple. That’s why health officials preach the importance of thoroughly cooking meat and poultry and to avoid unpasteurized dairy products. For produce, washing is key.

Unlike lettuce, spinach is sometimes cooked, like for omelets or creamed side dishes. In those foods, eaters are likely OK.

“Those items that are cooked probably would be safe, if cooked properly,” Schneider said. “But I don’t want to speak for Whole Foods. They’d rather be safe than sorry.”

Whole Foods couldn’t be reached for immediate comment.

It can take a while before illness gets reported

People sickened may not have reported it yet. The average lag is two to three weeks.

“One of the major challenges of identifying sources of foodborne disease is people eat a lot of food,” Stasiewicz said. “There’s also a major problem remembering what they eat. When eating a complex food, like a sandwich or burrito, you might not even know what you’re eating.”

The evidence is often tossed

Fresh produce has a short shelf life, especially quickly-spoiling bagged salads, so by the time the inspector made it to your house, the culprit would be long since tossed.

While you know what your favorite breakfast cereal is, chances are you don’t recall the name of the company that produces your spinach. That complicates tracking.

“Without a bag, a lot number to a farm, you don’t know where it was packed and what farm it came from,” Schneider said.

And even if you miraculously still had the tainted spinach, complete with the packer’s or farm’s name printed on it, the crop in the field by the time inspectors arrived would already be harvested.

Solving the problem isn’t simply a matter of CSI, according to Schneider, who added, “When you want to find the pathogen smoking gun, it’s gone.” 

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