Blame the bag, not the spinach

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I just stumbled across this fascinating post in the food blog Chez Pim. It’s by Andy Griffin, a California organic farmer who was a pioneer in the bagged-baby-greens business that is at the heart of the FDA’s spinach crackdown. If fresh spinach is a part of your life, I’d recommend reading the whole thing, but the money quote is this:

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.

Basically, the dirty bunch of spinach you pick up at a farmer’s market or even a supermarket (or at least could before the FDA banned the stuff) probably isn’t a problem. It’s the pristine-looking stuff in the bags that’s a problem.

As someone who eats a lot of spinach (usually sauteed with anchovies and garlic; it sounds weird, but it really is good), this is obviously of great interest to me. But it’s also another fascinating chapter in the economic and culinary saga of the produce business. Until about a half century ago you were mostly stuck with what was grown locally, plus some especially hardy stuff like bananas and oranges and potatoes. Then came interstate highways and refrigerated trucks and supermarket produce sections full of California lettuce in the middle of winter.

Much has been gained, but also much lost. (See Michael Pollan‘s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.) The biggest disaster, in my opinion, has been the ubiquitous flavorless tomato–an agricultural misstep that has only begun to be undone in recent years by the return of heirloom tomatoes in summer and those hydroponically grown Mexican grape tomatoes in winter.

Anyway, over the past decade, cute little organically grown greens of a sort previously found only in back gardens, farmers markets, and fancy restaurants have arrived by the prewashed-plastic-bag-full in supermarkets everywhere. That’s economic progress, I think. But as we’re seeing, it is not costless progress.

UPDATE: The spinach-with-anchovies recipe is here.