SPEAKING OF SPINACH

Sep 29th, 2006

Hi! Lenore here again, stealing a moment while Bob is too busy to write. Lots of people are asking about SPINACH!

“Why” spinach? How it is responsible for such a wide spread serious foodborne outbreak? Maybe you might remember the apple juice incident a few years back. Again “why” apple? Both of these foods seem low on the foods that cause illness list. Fish, beef, chicken, sure, these are the food safety red-flag foods. What happens to fruits and veggies to make them dangerous, too? In both the current spinach and apple juice outbreak, the cause is contamination with E.coli, the same nasty bug that caused illness from raw or undercooked hamburger. In both cases, the organism was found to be inside the cells of the spinach and apple, rendering thorough washing ineffective.

The CDC has been good about finding and letting us know the source of the tainted spinach, and the fact that they have traced such a wide spread outbreak back to a few counties in CA is very good news. This means the systems are in place for doing such a trace and notification is fairly swift. I congratulate our main food purveyor, Food Services of America, for being the first to let us know. Their email notice was in my mailbox the morning it was reported in the news. Of course, those who have suffered in this outbreak may not think highly of the pace for notification, and I am sure the CDC strives to become speedier. This outbreak began August 1 and the product recalls began Sept 15. If we look from the perspective of the CDC and powers that be, we can understand why they don’t want to label the source too quickly. Case in point, a few years ago the California strawberry was named in an outbreak from a parasite, and later, they discovered that it wasn’t strawberry but red raspberry sauce on the strawberry dessert that caused the outbreak. The raspberries came from a country that didn’t, at the time, use chlorinated water, and the chef didn’t wash or cook the raspberries in making the sauce. Either potentially would mitigate such an outbreak.

Both the spinach and raspberry stories gives credence to my favorite mantra—buy locally! Spinach from farms in Oregon and Washington as well as many other states are now exempt from the recall, according to the CDC this week. Hopefully people will continue to buy spinach. They say the California Strawberry farmers unfortunately never recovered the year of the red-raspberry outbreak; strawberry sales remained flat all season. I often wondered why the news doesn’t mention that spinach may be cooked to 160, for 15 seconds, to ensure safety. When used in fillings such as our Florentine crepes, it is safe because the filling reaches well over 160 degrees.

I have talked allot about the “what”—but now a few stabs at the “how.” The source of E.coli is from animal or human feces, so it is reasonable to think the contamination occurred in the field; not enough Port-a-potties in the fields to manage safe picking, I think. Improperly cured and prepared manure for fertilizing organically is another potential cause. And since most of the spinach had been prewashed, it certainly could have happened in the food packing plant, too. Whenever these outbreaks occur, it seems we never really get the lowdown on how it happens. Some form of human error is almost always a factor. Maybe by the time they narrow it down, it isn’t much of a news story anymore. I used to find out because I attended health department workshops that covered all recent outbreaks. I miss going to those meetings. It helps me know how to play it safer in my own food handling, and what to emphasize in my classes. It is how the health departments come up with their rules of safe food handling.

In summary, for now we can know only that we should avoid CA spinach until otherwise given the all clear. Continue to buy from local sources and, if we don’t know the source, we can cook it thoroughly to be safe. Oh, and continue to wash all greens, fruits and vegetables thoroughly whether cooking or eating raw.

Fresh Spinach Filling for Crepes (Florentine) For Florentine filling:
1 TBS shallots, minced
1 TBS garlic minced
4 bunches fresh spinach, cleaned, chopped
2 TB salted butter
2 oz. heavy cream, reduced by half
TT sea salt, ground pepper, ground coriander
TT Pernod
2 TBS Panko bread crumbs
2 tsp tarragon, chopped
Method Heat EVOO in sauté pan; add shallots and garlic; sauté until aromatic and slightly translucent. Add spinach and cook until it’s tender. Add butter and cream and season with spices. Add Pernod and cook for 10 more seconds; adjust consistency with bread crumbs and finish with tarragon. Place into oven proof dish and finish cooking in 350 degree oven for about 20 min or until to 160 degrees F. Fill crepes.

Whole Wheat Crepes
½ cup whole wheat flour pastry flour
½ cup AP flour
¼ tsp salt
3 large eggs
½ cup milk
2 tsp EVOO
½ c seltzer water or club soda Method Combine in a blender or food processor until smooth. Transfer to bowl, cover and refrigerate 30 min or overnight. At service, slowly whisk seltzer water or club soda into batter. Heat small nonstick skillet; lightly oil surface with cloth or paper towel dipped into oil, and ladle 2 TBS batter into skillet—tilting and rotating the pan to spread the batter evenly over bottom. Cook until lightly browned—30 seconds. Using small spatula, lift the edge and flip the crepe over. Cook second side about 20 more seconds. Slide onto plate.