There was a time when Popeye was strictly a can man: Nothing but spinach in a tin for the surly sailor-man. But times change, and so did Popeye, and as fresh spinach became all the rage with a health-conscious public, the cartoon character's jowly mug got plastered on bags of fresh spinach.
Now, as disease sleuths track a deadly outbreak of E. coli germs blamed on tainted fresh spinach, there's evidence that the sailor had it right back in the old days.
“We have failed to profit from the early example of Popeye,” said Dean Cliver, a food safety professor at the University of California at Davis. “One of the most honored traditions of the human race is learning to cook things so they don't kill us.”
That's as true for spinach as it is for beef, which is more often linked with E. coli in the public consciousness. The only way to kill the E. coli that burrow into the nooks and crannies of leafy, ground-dwelling vegetables like spinach is through cooking, or eating spinach from a can, which has already been subjected to high-heat sterilization.
So, until investigators figure out how spinach from central California was contaminated and safeguards are adopted, agriculture specialists recommend avoiding fresh spinach. More than 170 people in 25 states were sickened, apparently by the spinach.
To be sure, the vegetables and fruits and meat we consume today are, overall, vastly safer than the putrid mess that the author Upton Sinclair exposed a century ago in The Jungle. At the same time, our tastes and expectations have changed: We want our vegetables to come bagged and fresh and assume that means they're healthier.
“This episode definitely shakes and undermines consumers' confidence,” said Trevor Suslow, an extension research specialist at UC-Davis. “It gets to the point where you say, ‘I have multiple choices for food options, and right now I'm not going to take this chance.”’
Late last week farmers in the California region dubbed “The Salad Bowl to the World” promised to improve testing of water and soil for germs and to strengthen sanitation standards for field workers and packaging plants. At the same time, researchers in university labs are accelerating their efforts to find alternative ways to rid produce of dangerous bacteria.
In labs from Gainesville, Florida, to Davis, California, scientists are developing high-pressure systems that would blast germs to pieces and are studying the feasibility of treating produce with ozone to kill bacteria. Irradiation, controversial in this country, continues to be explored, as well.
And at the University of Florida, Eric Triplett is studying whether plants could be engineered to keep germs from getting inside in the first place.
E. coli is a hardy bacteria that can impose great damage in remarkably small quantities.
It dwells in water. It lives in soil. It colonizes vegetables.
Jeff LeJeune, a scientist at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, said his experiments have shown that the strain of E. coli implicated in the current outbreak, called 0157:H7, can remain infectious in water for six months or even longer.
So disease trackers following the trail of the tainted spinach are examining whether it came into contact with water fouled by E. coli, perhaps through sewage or farm waste. That might have happened, for instance, through flooding. Or irrigation.