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How Safe Is Our Food?


Spinach is one of the most dangerous foods.

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How safe is our food? Not safe. Spinach is one of the most dangerous foods, not because there is something wrong with spinach, but because of the way it is handled and the amount of pesticide in it.

This article is about food contamination.

In 2007, two year old Kyle Allgood of Chubbuck, Idaho, died of kidney failure after drinking a spinach smoothie his mother prepared for him. How is it possible that spinach, considered one of the world’s healthiest foods, make a healthy child so sick?

It wasn’t spinach that killed Kyle, but E. coli O157:H7 (the most dangerous strain of the bacteria) that this child consumed. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 199 cases in 26 states, resulting in 102 hospitalizations and two more deaths. The source of contamination was eventually traced to a stream and to cattle and wild pig feces in the fields of California’s Salina Valley. However, the CDC did not find out how exactly the contamination affected the crop.

It happened again only two months later. The CDC confirmed that 71 people were sickened by that same dangerous stain of E. coli in five Northeastern states after eating at Taco Bell restaurants. This time, the source of contamination was shredded lettuce. And a month later, another E. coli outbreak made 81 people sick after eating at Taco John’s restaurants in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The public reacted. People got scared of spinach and lettuce, so the sales of leafy greens plummeted. Restaurants reacted too by stopping serving spinach, even if it was cooked, while salad bars became very unpopular. Customers were not eating salads.

The outbreak caused another problem: Americans are known for eating a lot of unhealthy food and not a lot of healthy veggies, to begin with, now they were eating even less. The panic caused the nonpartisan Governmental Accountability Office to add food safety to its list of critically flawed federal programs.

Contamination of spinach and produce is still occurring. Only in January 2019, Whole Foods recalled salads, wraps with baby spinach for possible salmonella contamination. The affected products – the FDA has a list online – were sold at stores in Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.

Detecting Contamination Before It Reaches Market

An important part of prevention outbreaks is identifying contaminated products before they reach stores. To do that, microbiologists test foods by looking for pathogens directly or for indication organisms, which signal potential problems in the way foods are grown, produced or processed. In 2007 a number of systems were launched that automatically count bacteria to assess whether food is safe or not. Depending on the food, quality indicator testing can occur at various points along the product in chain. For example, in the case of spinach, which is minimally handled until it is washed, dried and packaged, testing takes place after packaging; in the case of raw poultry or meats, it typically takes place after processing.

No Food Is Sterile Unless It is Cooked

No food is sterile unless it is cooked. All raw food, meat, poultry or vegetables, will have some bacteria. That doesn’t mean the food is unsafe.

You Have to Wash Your Produce

You must wash produce before eating it. By washing, we are rising off soil, leaving germs and bacteria behind. Conventional washing techniques using soap and water remove about 90 to 99 percent of bacteria. But raw fruits and vegetables can have punctures that breed bacteria. Clumps of microorganisms on the surface of raw produce, called a biofilm, can be difficult to wash away. So the industry has been using other disinfections methods.


Chlorine is a toxic bleaching agent. While the governmental agencies have argued that the amount of chlorine we are exposed to does not cause any harm, the truth is that sketchy data exists on the long-term exposure to this bleaching, toxic agent.

In 2001, the FDA approved the use of ozone (also used to treat municipal water supplies in some parts of the USA) as a surface sanitizer and food disinfectant. The colorless gas is produced commercially by passing electricity through oxygen. Without heat or chemicals, it kills bacteria, viruses and molds on food like produce, poultry and meats. It is also environmentally friendly.

Although ozone is a faster, safer and more effective disinfectant than chlorine, no single disinfectant can guarantee pathogen-free food. At the University of Illinois research has been done on using a combination of ozone and ultrasound, which quickly and completely eliminates listeria biofilm on stainless steel, which is use on food processing equipment.

DNA Sleuthing

With our global economy and cheap transportation, we can purchase almost any fresh or processed food regardless of the season. When I was a teenager, fresh produce such as strawberries or tomatoes was only available during the harvest season. Today, both strawberries and tomatoes are available all year round. It’s not unusual to find tomatoes from Mexico, bananas from Ecuador and grapes from Chile. But around 1997, the safety imports was called into question when raspberries from Guatemala were tainted with cyclospora, a parasite that sickened about 1,800 people in the United States and Canada in two separate outbreaks. To avoid similar incidents, the federal government, along with state and local partners, developed a new rapid pathogen detection technique.

It relies on the same technology used by criminologists on crime TV shows to capture the DNA in blood and link it to specific individuals. In collaboration with the FDA, the process was refined for use in food testing. When produce enters the country – via ship, truck, rail or air – samples are immediately taken to a nearby field office, where a technician washes the food in a buffered isotonic solution. After screening out large particles that might interfere with testing, the technician apples small amounts of the wash to a chemically coated, index-size card to detect the presence of microscopic parasites.

The card captures a pathogen’s DNA for analysis and can be stored a room temperature for up to 14 years without the loss of DNA quality. This technique has another advantage, if a new molecular DNA test comes along, experts can go back and reanalyze the archived samples.

To be continued…

In part 2 of this series, we will examine natural and homemade ways of cleaning and disinfecting food.


Ozone and Food Processing. Retrieved from

Rice, G. R. (Ph.D.), Graham, D. M., & Lowe, M. T. (2002). Recent Ozone Applications in Food Processing and Sanitation. Food Safety Magazine. Retrieved from

Combination Of Technologies Works Best Against E. Coli. (December, 2006). Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Retrieved from

Dazzles in Green is an educator, journalist, environmentalist, vegetarian and avid cyclist. She holds a master's degree in anthropology and a Juris Doctor in intellectual property.

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