I used to think of the spinach ripple as that movement up and down Popeye's arms after he chugged a can of spinach. Sometimes the muscle would ripple up and down his arms, while at other times you would see the Spinach inside his arm. As a kid, it was a funny thing to watch. I suppose spinach producers hoped that Popeye would help sell spinach, but that approach never worked on me — though Bugs Bunny sold me on the idea of eating carrots that still had their greens attached. Spinach didn't appeal to me until I first used it, frozen and chopped, in a stuffed pizza recipe.
The spinach ripple is what I call the fear of spinach that's spreading in the wake of the E. coli outbreak. All of the tainted spinach has been traced to large California growers, who bag and ship their spinach across the U.S. and to other countries.
After several days of Ethicurean digests containing spinach stories, I was happy to walk the stalls at Sunday's Ballard Farmers' Market and see spinach on display. At the Oxbow Organic Farm stall, the spinach basket was empty except for a single bunch by mid-afternoon.
Clearly, market shoppers weren't concerned about spinach from this source. Consumers understood that the problem was with spinach from a specific source, grown under BigAg conditions. Knowing the source of spinach and trusting the farmers' practices counts for something.
Or so I thought, until I received our vegetable CSA's newsletter with my weekly share.
Most weeks, I glance over the newsletter and then turn to the list of veggies in the box to contemplate the week's ingredients. The newsletter announces extra produce available for purchase, informs us of life on the farm, and educates us on the differences between big agriculture and small organic farms. Devoting an entire newsletter to one topic isn't unusual, but devoting the one-pager to one vegetable is out of the ordinary.
The newsletter comments on the E. coli outbreak traced to one large producer and contrasts the stringent requirements of organic farming with the much laxer standards of conventional farms. The source of the California contamination is thought to be conventional spinach from Natural Selection Foods, which grows both organic and conventional foods.
The point of the newsletter was to reassure members of the safety of the produce from Helsing Junction Farm, and they did so in a way that I appreciate: With their stomachs. Our CSA farmers eat the same vegetables that they share with us. We walked the rows of vegetables and chatted with the farmers on our recent visit. We have seen the care they take in their work.
Trusting someone's two decades of farming experience isn't a sure bet, but the combination of organic standards and knowing the farmers results in a higher quality of produce and a higher level of trust. The larger an operation grows, the harder it becomes to manage and track all of the inputs and outputs, and the harder it is to guarantee safety and health.
We don't have spinach in the household since we have a small CSA share. Only large shares received spinach this week, and we haven't bought vegetables recently due to an excess of frisee and other greens from the CSA box. September is a time in Seattle when the weather turns cold and our interest in fresh greens wanes, replaced by a desire for heavier food. I am relying on a stir fry tonight to use most our broccoli and carrots.
My mind turns to how to use our potatoes, and a spinach-potato au gratin sounds right for the weather. I will eat spinach from a local farmer, but what about the Butter Bitch? She says to me:
Of course I'd eat spinach from the farmers' market or CSA. It's not all spinach that's bad — just spinach from the Central Valley that's probably been contaminated by God knows what and then sent through a giant processing plant, mixed with other stuff, then sent all over to hell and gone.
The USDA Food Safety Information Center advises consumers not to eat any fresh spinach, but that is misleading. Yes, organic spinach can become contaminated with E. coli, as pointed out in the P-I's facts on spinach, but consumers should remember that the outbreak is due to problems with a specific growing region and not endemic to spinach growers across the nation.
The spinach ripple spreading through news outlets is driven by fear and ignorance of food, the latter a trend that is as dangerous as E. coli.