Still no spinach, and menus suffer

The FDA is still tracking down the source of a nasty E. coli outbreak. So local restaurants make do.

Published September 19, 2006

Poor spinach never gets a break.

The warning of E. coli in bagged spinach from California has come at a time when Americans have decided to love the leafy green. We eat spinach for the right reasons - fiber, iron, calcium, vitamins A and C - and also because it's wickedly good with cream and melted cheese.

Most restaurants and groceries around the Tampa Bay area and across the country have moved quickly to pull spinach from shelves and menus. That took considerable doing. Spinach is integral to cheese dips, many health-hyped smoothie drinks, pizzas, lasagna, chicken Florentine, spinach pies, oysters Rockefeller and souffles.

In 2004 and again in 2005, the top food safety official at the Food and Drug Administration warned California farmers they needed to do more to increase the safety of their fresh leafy greens.

The current food-poisoning episode is the 20th since 1995 linked to spinach or lettuce, the FDA said.

"In light of continuing outbreaks, it is clear that more needs to be done," the FDA's Robert Brackett wrote in a Nov. 4, 2005, letter.

Though state and federal officials have traced the current outbreak to fresh spinach from Natural Selection Foods LLC of California, they haven't pinpointed the source of the bacteria that have killed one person and sickened at least 113 others. A second death was being investigated in the outbreak, which involves 21 states. There have been no confirmed cases in Florida.

The FDA is still warning consumers not to eat fresh spinach. And while cooking does kill the bacteria and eliminates any risk, most kitchens got rid of all spinach, raw or cooked, to reassure customers.

"It's amazing how much we use. We've got a spinach salad, our oysters Florentine, our shrimp Rockefeller, and we're always getting people in the bistro asking for sauteed spinach. Now everybody loves it," said Jack Herr at Heilman's Beachcomber in Clearwater. Yet they had to pitch all the spinach.

A further complication is that many bags of mixed lettuces have baby spinach in the package.

"We just want to be prudent," said Kathleen Calkins at the Capitol Grille at International Plaza in Tampa. "We removed the creamed spinach, the spinach salad, the mesclun salad (with spinach) and took the sauteed spinach off the swordfish. We have no spinach anything."

Terence McElroy of the Florida Department of Agriculture said he expects the cause of this outbreak is an aberration and doubts it will turn consumers away from prewashed packages of "value-added" produce.

The FDA does not consider the contamination deliberate. That leaves a broad range of other sources, including contaminated irrigation water that has been a problem in California's Salinas Valley.

In an unrelated development in the produce section, inspectors are searching Florida warehouses for whole heads of raw lettuce from California that are infested with small insects called pea leafminers.

These pests are not dangerous to humans but are an agricultural threat if they spread to Florida crops, and consequently supplies of whole head lettuce may be limited.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.