You'll have to forgive me if I take this personally.
Three recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses traced to bagged spinach or lettuce from California have led some scientists and food safety advocates to suggest that packaging greens might contribute to the spread of a lethal strain of E. coli bacteria.
In particular, the centralized processing of fresh greens can increase the risk of more widespread contamination, just as tainted beef from one steer can find its way into hundreds of packages of ground meat, said Dr. David W.K. Acheson, chief medical officer at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Do they know for absolute certain it was E. coli that caused me the greatest physical suffering of my life? No, not for absolute certain. And whatever the contaminant, it was complicated by undiagnosed gluten intolerance. But still, I do sit up and take notice, and I do want, no, demand serious food safety precautions.
On March 17, 2000 I drove from Massachusetts to New Jersey. Along the way I stopped at Wendy's. When I got to New Jersey, I had dinner at Ruby Tuesday with friends. Then, because it was St. Patrick's day, I went out for a beer with a friend. By the time we got to the bar I felt sick. I left not long after. By midnight, I was violently ill. By 2 AM I would have said it took all my strength to reach the phone and call for a car to bring me to the campus health center. Except that when I got up and made my way down the stairs to get out to the car, it redefined my idea of how much strength I could summon. I passed out briefly two or three times between my bedroom and the front door. Passed out where no matter how hard I fought, darkness flashing with swirling spotty lights closed around my field of vision and my extremities were numb and burning at the same time and I felt myself falling backwards away from the door I knew I had to reach to get help, the door I dragged myself out by the handle and left unlocked because I had no choice. I had to choose between putting on shoes and getting to the door, so I went to the infirmary in socks, and came home in them 2 days later.
The nurse at the infirmary couldn't find a vein to put me on IV fluids. She couldn't take my blood pressure sitting upright because I could not sit upright for long enough. The ambulance came for me not long after.
In the ambulance, they got an IV in my arm, though not ideally placed. It ended up infiltrating and my hand grew painful and puffy and cold as the fluid soaked the tissue rather than going into the vein. At the emergency room, they covered me in sensors and discovered that when they propped me into a semi-sitting position, my heart raced and I lost coherence. They made noises about pumping my stomach since I'd been puking red without sufficient explanation for why that might be, but they didn't do it.
They released me around 30 hours later, after administering fluids and cipro through IV, with cipro pills. Two weeks later, at a follow-up visit, the gastroenterologist told me the dehydration had been so severe I could have suffered heart failure.
So, yeah, my own experience having been aggravated by gluten intolerance or not, I take the threat of E. coli pretty fucking seriously.
But both lettuce and spinach destined for packaging generally are trucked to centralized processing plants, where tainted and untainted leaves can be mixed during chopping, washing and bagging. By contrast, greens that are not bagged are not chopped up and mingled.
The bagged greens industry has consolidated so much that a single contamination problem can threaten the entire industry, said Timothy York, chief executive officer of Markon Cooperative Inc., a Salinas-based produce purchaser for food service distributors. According to the Produce Marketing Assn., nearly 90% of the retail market for packaged salads is controlled by only two companies: Dole Fresh Vegetables and Fresh Express.
We can't wash our own lettuce - it's just too difficult. We have to buy it chopped and bagged and if people die, well, that was an accident. And consolidation of ownership - that's the free market, baby. Gotta love it.