First drugs, then terror: now US in 'war with spinach'

Click to follow

First came the war on drugs. Then the war on terror. And now - in an America more than usually prone to fear, paranoia and the beeping of colour-coded alert systems - comes the war on organic spinach.

Ever since an outbreak of infections from the E.coli bacteria was traced to bagged spinach a few days ago, the feds have been relentless. No danger of the governmental breakdown that characterised the response to Hurricane Katrina a year ago. No half-measures or mollycoddling of the green leafy vegetable lobby.

The outbreak has indeed been serious and significant - more than 100 confirmed contaminations in 19 states, including one 77-year-old woman who died in Wisconsin and more than 50 others sent to hospital - but the response has also been staggering in its severity.

Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory to consumers to avoid all fresh spinach - raw or cooked, bagged or unbagged, organic or not - until further notice. Schoolchildren may have cheered and cheered, but for the country's spinach farmers the official warning spelt something close to calamity.

Organic farmers' markets have turned into spinach-free zones - even though the small growers who typically bring their produce to big-city markets are almost certainly blameless. Trader Joe's, the California-based supermarket chain whose fortunes are based on providing gourmet-quality food at everyday prices, had nothing but a big hole where its spinach bags used to be.

Corner cafés and restaurants have started replacing the spinach in their quiche with rocket. Spinach farmers, meanwhile, have been left staring at their crops sitting out in the fields in the knowledge that, within a few days at the most, they will have to rip them up and write them off for lost.

"We've stopped harvesting," the spinach growers' spokesman, Joe Pezzini, told a northern California newspaper. His company, Ocean Mist, has not come under suspicion, but it makes no difference. "It has a whole ripple effect. You have acres and acres of spinach out in the field right now."

E.coli is carried in animal faeces, which means some producer somewhere has a problem with contaminated water, or some other sort of seepage in either the picking or the packing process. For now, two big companies have recalled their products - Earthbound and River Ranch Fresh Foods. Both are based in the Salinas valley in northern California - Steinbeck country, where spinach is a $200m (£106m) industry.

Yesterday, Earthbound announced that its organic spinach - the focus of much of the initial anxiety - had been given the all-clear. Federal investigators, meanwhile, fanned out over the Salinas area to try to trace the infection to its source.

Consumers have responded to the spinach crisis in various ways. Some are laughing it off. ("I have more fear from the local followers of Islam than bagged salad," one e-mail correspondent wrote to The San Francisco Chronicle.) Others are taking the pragmatic approach of boiling their spinach rather than eating it raw. Many others, however, have gone into overdrive - washing and rewashing all their fruit and vegetables, even though cold water is ineffective against E.coli.

The crisis has had one intriguing side effect. The point of bagged salad is to spare consumers washing their greens before they eat them. Now, however, everyone is on notice that commercial washing and bagging is no guarantee of protection from germs. "Greens in a bag have been handled by two or more sets of human hands," Albert Goodwyn of San Francisco wrote to his local paper. "What else did those hands hold on to? 'Nuff said."