DON’T eat your spinach — for now

Lisa Napoli Sep 15, 2006

Professor Doug Powell was incorrectly identified in this story. He is a food safety expert at Kansas State University.

BOB MOON: Forget what mom always told you. For now, at least, don’t eat your spinach. Not if it’s the kind that comes in a bag. The Food and Drug Administration is telling people to avoid packaged spinach — even if you were planning to cook it.

So far 10 states have reported an outbreak of E. coli bacteria that’s been traced back to packages of spinach, although the exact source isn’t yet clear. One person has even died.

Now, this scare got us wondering. How much do we all rely on packaged produce these days? We asked Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli to take a look.

LISA NAPOLI: For those of us with no time to wash and trim, bagged spinach seems to be the greatest thing since sliced bread.

KURT RICHTER:“When you buy that bag, you can pop it open, throw it in the bowl, and eat it — instantly.”

That’s Kurt Richter of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center. He says the quest for convenience along with the desire for healthy eating has added up to soaring sales of fresh salads.

Close to $3 billion worth of bagged salads alone are sold each year. They comprise the biggest chunk of the $15 billion-a-year packaged produce business.

RICHTER:“The industry’s done a great job of developing that product to meet that consumer demand.”

The irony is that something so healthy can be so dangerous. Doug Powell is a food safety expert at the University of Kansas. He says today fresh fruits and vegetables are probably the most significant source of food-borne illnesses. He says this spinach incident is going to force the industry to answer the question:

DOUG POWELL:“What can we do to get the benefits of the convenience so we increase consumption, while at the same time minimizing these risks?”

A similar outbreak last year already had watchdogs calling for increased industry regulation.

In Los Angeles, I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.

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