Weekly comment

When vegetables become victims

Related tags Nutrition United states

The demonisation of spinach following last week's E.coli outbreak
could give salad-dodgers the excuse they have been looking for to
skimp on their recommended five to nine portions of fruit and veg a
day. Without communication and a united front from industry, a
longer-term public health crisis could be on the cards.

The last decade has borne testament to the impact health scares have on food choices; BSE and bird flu have done more to swell numbers in the vegetarian community than any other event.

While most dieticians agree that vegetarians can glean the nutrients they need from non-animal derived foods so long as they plan their diet carefully, it does not take a great leap of the imagination to conclude that whatever has caused the spinach contamination could equally affect other grown-in-the-ground vegetables. And avoiding vegetables entirely could be catastrophic.

Every week, at least one study presenting more evidence in support of fruit and vegetables' role in reducing the risk of various serious illnesses like cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's is published in a reputable scientific journal.

So although the 171 cases of E.coli (at the last count) and one confirmed death are entirely regrettable, if the response to these is not tempered, the true impact on public health could be a whole lot worse.

What is more, although the affected spinach seems to have stemmed from the United States, these days the journey from farm to fork is often a long-haul, so food alerts are a cause for concern even among consumers on the other side of the world.

The matter has been widely reported in consumer media in Europe. And even one member of the Decision News Media team admitted steering her supermarket trolley away from the spinach last week "just in case"​.

And it's not just amongst consumers that food scares pique high emotions. In an industry where opinion over the best modus operandi​ is split between extremes, food-related illness can pour oil on the debate.

For instance, anti-food mile campaigners could argue that eating local produce means that any problem is locally contained, not carried far afield on the trade winds.

Likewise, organisations that advocate chemical fertilisers have used the spinach crisis as an opportunity for a told-you-so style lambaste of organic practices. Manure is loaded with bacteria, they argue, while synthetic chemicals are not. And composting, unlike pesticides, does not always kill the bacteria.

But at this stage it is crucial to remember that the cause of the contamination is not known​. Some experts have suggested that flooding, poor drainage, or weather patterns could have caused the contamination, but until the FDA and Center for Disease Control reach an evidence-based conclusion, all explanations remain theoretical.

For the record, in their latest announcement the authorities say the culpable produce hails from three Northern Californian counties, and no fresh, bagged spinach grown in Monterey, San Benito or Santa Clara will be sold until the problem is identified and dealt with. Spinach grown elsewhere is proclaimed safe.

Nonetheless, it is going to take a while for the fear to subside and consumers to, once again, buy spinach by the bunch-load. Spinach farmers everywhere are no doubt bracing themselves for a few lean years.

But the sooner we start down the road towards restoring consumer confidence, the less the long-term impact on consumer attitudes and industry will be.

Transparent communication and traceability is key to staving off wide-spread panic. Rumours and misinformation, on the other hand, can spread faster than disease itself, and be almost as devastating.

Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website NutraIngredients.com and NutraIngredients-USA.com. Over the past decade she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States.

If you would like to comment on this article, please contact Jess Halliday​.

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