By Expat Chef
I was cleaning and prepping arugula and mixed greens this weekend for a Sunday dinner. My husband, ever attempting to be a comedian, joked, “Did you get the E. coli all washed off?”
You know, that’s not funny. So I just replied, “Well, if we get sick, I sure know who to go look for.” And I do because I bought the greens at the farmer’s market from the same farmers I see every week.
It was not really an issue that I thought about much, the importance of knowing the source, until news stories like the Bagged Spinach Incident occurs. Someone died. There were similar issues with a Hepatitis A outbreak and scallions in November of 2003.
Knowing your produce farmer, it seems, is no joke.
But there are other reasons buying local is best, and especially when it comes to those fresh leafy greens. Last spring, we were commenting to one of our favorite growers, “Farmer Dan,” about how good the heirloom lettuces were that we bought from him, and how long they lasted and just how fresh they tasted. He smiled, and said, “Yep, we don’t have to spray a bunch of stuff on them to get them to last like they do with stuff from the store.”
Now, Farmer Dan is a unique individual. He has some interesting conspiracy theories that, if even partially true, scare me senseless. He also has a deep and abiding fear of anything not of natural origin or cultivation. In other words, who better to grow your food?
I figured I would check this theory out. Do they spray your lettuce to make it last longer? And with what?
According to an abstract on lettuce “conditioning” by the Texas A&M Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, the shelf life of most lettuces is about 14 days, even with adequate refrigeration. Because of this, lettuce and other veggies are “conditioned” to extend shelf life and to kill dangerous microorganisms. Various techniques include; antioxidant treatment, modified atmosphere packaging, refrigerated storage, washing with chlorinated water or ozone, and most recently, irradiation, which was approved for use in 1998.
There are drawbacks to irradiation that notably may affect the quality, such as softening, browning, and loss of nutrition. The use of chlorine for cleaning of packaged lettuces has also been linked to a reduction in the nutrition of the greens according to a study by the Rome Institute of Food and Nutrition. For more details on this, you can review the 2004 article by Felicity Lawrence in “The Ecologist Online.”
The treatments do have a purpose in attempting to make food safer, but as you can see from the recent news on spinach, even those measures do not always work. Sources of contamination can include the spread of feces from the farm workers or labor at the packing facilities, improperly composted manure or contaminated water. The consumption of greens, even locally grown, should be a careful choice by any persons who have a compromised immune system.
Of course, the biggest problem most of us have with eating local and loving lettuce, is how short the growing season is in most states. Here in the Midwest, we can only get local greens in early spring and early fall. If we desire a salad in winter, local is just not an option. As I research the lettuce issue more, though, I realize the best option is not to eat salads in winter at all unless I want a side of rocket fuel with my dressing.
Rocket fuel? According to an article published by the Environmental Working Group, most of the lettuce that we eat in the winter is grown in a region of California and Arizona that is irrigated by the Colorado River, which is contaminated by a chemical from rocket fuel, perchlorate. The EPA even has established “safe” limits for perchlorate consumption, which is fascinating since prior to my "greens" research I had never even heard of it.
While the water itself is within legal limits, lettuces are thirsty vegetables, and tend to concentrate the chemical in their leaves, on average up to 65 times the level in the water source.
High concentrations of perchlorate can impair the thyroid’s ability to take up iodide and produce hormones critical to proper fetal and infant brain development. You can find more information on this topic from the Environmental Working Group’s web site.
You can find the alternate view of perchlorate’s relative safety at the Council on Water Quality’s web site and decide for yourself. The “Myths and Facts” section of the site claims, “Further, because low levels of perchlorate (below 245 ppb) have no measurable effect on human health … total removal of perchlorate serves no purpose. In fact, doing so could cost millions of taxpayer dollars for treatment facilities …” The Council on Water Quality is supported by Lockheed Martin, Aerojet, Tronox and American Pacific Corporation. Lockheed Martin is one of the primary users of perchlorate and a primary source of the perchlorate contamination in the Colorado River.
Now, if the source of the contamination is known, and it is a corporate entity, why would it cost taxpayers millions for the clean up and not the polluters? Sounds like E. coli to me.
Bullshit or bacteria, chlorine or perchlorate, I only want two non-local substances on my leafy greens; aged balsamic vinegar from Modena, and really good olive oil.
You can find more information on your drinking water from the EPA web site.
You can find information on lettuce and perchlorate at the Environmental Work Group’s site.
You can find Lockheed-sponsored research on the Council on Water Quality site.
You can find fresh lettuces, seasonally, and delicious at your farmer’s market. Eat at your own risk or enjoyment. Your pick.
Finally, you can find the Expatriate Chef in her kitchen, eating locally grown salad like a crazed rabbit to get it all in before the long winter ahead.