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Spinach & E. coli: Questions & Answers

Answers to 14 Questions About the E. coli Outbreak in Spinach

Q. For people who used to eat fresh spinach often, what are some alternatives?

A. If you're looking for fresh greens, try lettuces such as radicchio, escarole, and romaine. Arugula, collard greens, mustard greens, and kale are other options, say Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, and Lola O'Rourke, RD, spokeswomen for the American Dietetic Association.

The spinach ban could be an opportunity to experiment with other greens, says O'Rourke, who is based in Seattle.

"We don't want people to stop eating fresh fruits and vegetables, because they're so important for good health," says Jamieson-Petonic. "They're wonderful sources of vitamins and minerals."

Jamieson-Petonic manages the Fairview Hospital Wellness Center in Rocky River, Ohio, near Cleveland.

Q. Can you trust fresh spinach that's locally grown, such as spinach from farmers markets?

A. Until further notice, the FDA advises people not to eat fresh spinach from any source, including supermarkets, restaurants, and farmers markets.

"There's no evidence to indicate that spinach that is obtained from a local farmers market outside of the areas that have been implicated with the outbreak -- the three counties that we discussed [California's Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Clara counties] -- is in any way implicated in this outbreak," Acheson tells WebMD.

"The difficulty with putting out a nationwide consumer message is obviously the need for clarity," he says.

"If an individual ... knows exactly where the spinach was grown, and they know it wasn't implicated in an area of concern as part of this outbreak, then obviously it would be safe to consume," Acheson says.

The FDA is working on a process to allow spinach not grown in the three California counties to be allowed back on store shelves, but that plan isn't in place yet.

Q. Should we worry about frozen spinach, canned spinach, or spinach baby food?

A. No.

At this time, the FDA has no evidence frozen spinach, canned spinach, or spinach in premade meals manufactured by food companies are affected. These products are safe to eat, according to the FDA.

"Frozen spinach is normally 'blanched' with hot water or steam prior to being frozen, which should be effective for destroying E. coli," Linton explains.

"The thermal process given for all low-acid foods, including baby food and canned spinach, is done at 230 [degrees Fahrenheit] or higher, where E. coli will be destroyed. E. coli is destroyed at 160-165 [degrees Fahrenheit," Linton says.

Q. Can people cook fresh spinach or salad blends containing fresh spinach?

A. The FDA currently recommends that the public not consume fresh (uncooked) spinach or salad blends containing fresh spinach. However, E. coli O157:H7 in spinach can be killed by cooking at 160 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds.

If consumers choose to cook fresh spinach, they should follow these cooking instructions and also take steps to avoid cross-contamination between the fresh spinach and other food or food- contact surfaces. They should wash hands, utensils, and surfaces with hot, soapy water before and after handling fresh spinach.

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