Can Eating Spinach Kill You?

Eat your spinach!  Support the health of your eyes, skin, bones and heart.  Spinach is the supermodel of all vegetables combining nutrients and vitamins into one low calorie fat free food that is as versatile as it is healthy.  So why the death threat?  “Foodborne diseases are an important public health problem in the U.S.”  according to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) released on April 19, 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There was the great spinach recall of 2006.  An excruciating illness swept across the nation.  It took weeks to identify the what and the where-from.  Finally the culprit was revealed and the public was warned not to eat any fresh spinach.  Spinach vanished from store shelves and menus, as the incidence of infection continue to rise.  Escherichia coli, nicknamed E.coli, was the cause of a severe food poisoning outbreak that claimed three lives as a result of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a resulting kidney failure.

The Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, (FoodNet), tracks infections transmitted through food.  Last year 4,563 hospitalizations and 68 deaths were traced to foodborne illness.  It takes between 1-10 days for infection to develop and 2-3 weeks to confirm an outbreak.  This is a considerable amount of time, so how can we protect ourselves?

Foodborne pathogens such as E.coli and Salmonella are the most likely to be carried on fresh vegetables and fruits.  Fresh produce is susceptible due exposure to manure and water, and the process of growing, harvesting, and processing.  This is terrifying and confusing for those of us who want to make a health conscious decision and follow the advice of, well, everyone!  Eat your veggies! Five servings of fruits and vegetables a day!  Doctors, media, and the nutrition industry share one common opinion nowadays, and that is to stock your refrigerator full of fresh produce and chow down for better health.

The single most important step that we as consumers can take towards protecting ourselves is basic: wash thoroughly before you eat.  If you prefer the convenience of bagged leafy greens and the label states that it has been washed, wash it again.  When purchasing natural harvest greens, beauty is more that just skin deep!  Take your time and select leaves that are not torn and ragged.  Just like human skin, bacteria can get inside the leaf through a cut and cause an infection.  To take further precautions you can prepare an at home all natural rinse of 1 tbsp lemon juice, 2 tbsp white vinegar, and 1 cup of water.  The natural antiseptic and acidic qualities can successfully remove bacteria that a simple cold water rinse may miss.  Create a hostile environment; cooking your veggies at 160 Fahrenheit for 15-30 seconds will destroy bacteria but not nutrients.

In 2008, the FDA approved irradiation of spinach.  It is a method to control foodborne pathogens with the use of ionizing radiation.  If this frightens you, then look for the “Radura” label and avoid purchasing these products.  January 4, 2011, Obama signed the Food Safety Enhancement Act into law, otherwise known as FSMA.  This extremely long and complex document is comprised of two rules: 1) Preventive Controls for Human Food, and 2) Produce Safety.  By setting stricter regulations for farming and food processing the government aims to shift from reacting, to preventing outbreaks.

The most recent food recall of spinach was in February of this year by Taylor Farms, who suspected an E.coli contamination although there was no reported illness.  Random testing on water and produce samples have been effective at reducing the number of possible infections.  Consumer awareness is the most important tool that we have to protect ourselves.  So by all means, eat your spinach everyday, spinach every way!

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