To date, 175 cases of E. coli bacteria in tainted spinach have been reported, killing at least one person in Wisconsin. More than 20 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious kidney complication from E. coli exposure, have also been reported and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are announcing more hospitalizations daily.
The outbreak has spread across 25 states and has now shown up in Canada. The exact same genetic signature of the US spinach was recently found in Renfrew Country, Ontario when a woman became ill.
The source of the outbreak has been traced to California' Salinas Valley - which bills itself as the "Salad Bowl of the World" and specifically three counties: Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara, although the source is still unknown. And officials say it may never be known. It could be in the irrigation water - some processors expose spinach to chlorine to kill E. coli, which can kill the bacteria on the leaf surface, but if the bacteria are in irrigation water they can enter the plant, and the chlorine will not reach them. Or it could be a processing problem in a factory: according to one official, E. coli can multiply rapidly in the humid environment of a sealed bag of spinach or salad mix. Or the seeds may have been contaminated...
As well as the obvious and immediate health problems, a halt in the spinach harvest can have dire consequences financially; it affects not only pickers and farmers but possibly the entire salad industry. The Salinas Valley spinach crop was worth $188 million last year and the market is all but wiped out now.
On September 17th, [The New York Times] reported that two companies have been identified and implicated in the outbreak. River Ranch Fresh Foods obtained salad that included spinach from the first company implicated, Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, Calif. The spinach that passed through River Ranch was sold under the brand names Farmers Market, Hy-Vee, and Fresh and Easy. So far five companies have recalled their products.
Produce Giant Dole Food Company has issued a [statement] warning consumers to dispose of any DOLE-branded packaged fresh spinach products stamped with a Best-If-Used-By date of August 17 through October 1, 2006.
These packages were sold under 28 different brand names, one of which was DOLE®. Natural Selection Foods produced and packaged all spinach items under the DOLE label (with the names "Spinach," "Baby Spinach" and "Spring Mix"). The Natural Selection Foods recall and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recall impacts DOLE Spinach, Baby Spinach and Spring Mix with Best-If-Used-By dates from August 17 through October 1, 2006.
Washing and cooking does not guarantee eliminating e coli bacteria. If you are uncertain of its origin, best to avoid fresh spinach. Frozen and canned spinach have not been implicated.
Spinach is a cold weather crop and harvest is just beginning in many other states and Canada. Whenever possible buy organic and failing that, opt for kale or Swiss chard - a close cousin to spinach and just a few more minutes cooking time is the only difference in preparation.
And keep this in mind: When in doubt, buy local - as long as you don't live in California, that is.