Thursday, September 21, 2006
I have never eaten canned spinach. I knew kids who were forced to eat canned spinach, but not me. My mother loved me too much to feed me that vile stuff.
It’s not that she didn’t force me to eat my vegetables—you bet she did. (And it wasn’t this mamby-pamby “No vegetables, no dessert;” it was: “Eat your vegetables. Period.”) But, as I say, she loved me, and so she served frozen spinach. It was OK. Not great, but OK.
Come to think of it, I must have tasted canned spinach once, because I knew I hated it. When it was put on my plate at school or at a friend’s house, I was the kid who just refused to eat it. There was nothing anyone was going to do that could make me eat that slimy, bitter, boiled-to-death crap.
Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are the alternative to composted manure. Ultimately, they are far more dangerous.
Kids today have it good. Most of them are never forced to eat canned spinach. They don’t even eat frozen spinach. Kids today get fresh spinach all the time—something that was a rare summertime treat when I was growing up in New Jersey. Nowadays moms everywhere are able to buy fresh spinach packed in ingenious plastic bags, almost all year long.
Frozen spinach, with a pat of butter and some salt and pepper, is pretty good. Fresh spinach, lightly steamed, is a lot better. Raw fresh spinach, in a nice salad, with a little balsamic vinaigrette, some crumbled feta—that’s damn tasty.
Kids today like spinach. That’s a remarkable development. Kids who grow up saying “Spinach salad—yum,” are going to be healthier, happier and better-looking than kids who don’t.
In considering the E. Coli outbreak, which, tragically, has killed one person and sickened more than 100 over the past two weeks, we need keep this in mind: Fresh spinach is one of life’s great little pleasures, and the fact that millions of Americans are now able to enjoy it is, on balance, a good thing.
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Before it became delicious, spinach was famously good for you—that’s why you ate it. Like Popeye.
The way this E. coli scare is playing in the national media, fresh spinach could come to be seen as dangerous. Raw vegetables in general could become suspect. That would be bad for our agricultural economy, and it would be bad for America’s kids.
As I write this, the exact source of the contamination is not known. There has been speculation that Earthbound Farm, the nation’s largest organic grower, is involved. (At this point, it does not appear that any organic spinach was responsible for the outbreak; Earthbound, through its sister-company Natural Selection, grows and packs non-organic spinach for a number of brands.)
As a national leader in organic farming, Earthbound regularly employs practices in which cow manure is composed and added to soil to increase fertility—an old-fashioned farming technique that cuts down on the need for chemical fertilizers. Earthbound is at the forefront of a modern move back to this traditional way of farming, and away from industrial practices which hurt the environment and produce less-healthy food.
Cow manure is good stuff. For millennia, farmers have worked composted manure into their fields to replenish their fertility. It adds nutrients to the soil, and helps create a living ecosystem in which crops can flourish. Crops grown in healthy, composted soils often do not require pesticides to protect them from infestation.
Cow manure is also a vector for E. coli bacteria. To prevent contamination of their crops, farmers allow the manure to compost, either by applying it to fields well in advance of planting, or by mixing it with other organic materials in compost heaps, to cook the bacteria out. All farmers who use manure must comply with strict regulations set up by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); the rules for organic farmers are particularly stringent.
There is no conclusive evidence that the E. coli that caused this national scare got into crops through cow manure used as fertilizer—it could have come from contaminated irrigation water. But an article in the Salinas Californian quotes Robert Brackett, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Nutrition, as saying that manure is discouraged for use as a fertilizer “for produce typically consumed raw, such as spinach.”
Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are the alternative to composted manure. Ultimately, they are far more dangerous, and create a bigger health risk.
Growers take great precautions to ensure that our food is safe, as they should. And yet, as the events of the past week illustrate, sometimes, shit happens.
Let’s hope there is no overreaction to this rare, unfortunate event. Let’s hope this scare does not make America’s moms afraid of fresh food grown the old-fashioned way. Let’s hope we do not have to go back to boiling spinach and packing it in cans.