Flash in the Pan 

E. coli? It’s in the bag

The recent outbreak of E. coli, traced to bagged spinach from California, has been linked to at least one death and more than 140 hospitalizations. Since the first reported incident in late August, fingers have been pointed and re-pointed, and the exact source of the mass food poisoning remains a mystery.

Some blame the cattle feedlots upstream from where the contaminated spinach might have been grown. Such operations are breeding grounds for this strain of E. coli, which has been linked to other outbreaks, mostly beef-borne, in recent years. These feedlots, say the beef-blamers, contaminated the groundwater that irrigated the spinach.

Then there are the organic-blamers, who contend that organic farming practices, which employ cow manure instead of biologically sterile chemical fertilizers, are to blame. The cow manure was incompletely composted, the organic-blamers speculate, and thus sufficient heat to kill the microbes was not generated.

At press time, investigations seem close to vindicating organic spinach, but all bagged spinach remains high-risk in the eyes of the USDA. At the farmers’ markets, meanwhile, spinach is flying off the tables, as is loose leaf spinach grown locally and labeled as such at the store. It doesn’t matter if the spinach is certified organic or not. What matters is that it was grown close to home, and not in California.

And while it has yet to be determined whether the source of this outbreak was organic or conventional spinach, Natural Selection Foods—which distributes both organic and nonorganic produce—has remained a central focus.

Thus, in terms of food safety, we have the big organic and big conventional producers in faraway California perched squarely in the “unsafe” camp, while the small organic and small conventional producers close to home are considered by consumers—rightly so—to be safe.

I’m not suggesting that organic is the same as nonorganic. All other factors being equal, I would always choose the organic option. But I am suggesting that the distance from home that a foodstuff is grown, and the scale of the operation that grows it, can be more important than whether it’s certified organic. In the case of the current E. coli outbreak, I’m not alone. And one group of local farmers is reaping the benefits.

This group consists of 12 western Montana farms that have banded together to form the Homegrown label, which guarantees its produce was grown locally, ecologically, and in a healthy farming community using fair labor practices. This, members say, more accurately reflects their product than would a USDA Certified Organic label.

“What we as small farmers took for granted, that organic means small and local, is gone,” says Josh Slotnick of Clark Fork Organics, which has dropped its USDA Organic certification after 14 years. “The label that describes tomatoes flown 2,000 miles from a 3,000-acre monoculture worked by migrant workers who don’t make a living wage doesn’t describe the food my family grows.”

Such mega-monocultures are a byproduct of the increasing public demand for organic produce. Most of this demand is generated by self-centered notions that eating organic is better for your body, and doesn’t much attach to the fact that organic practices tend to be lighter on the surrounding ecosystems as well. Because of this demand, corporations like Philip Morris/Kraft, Nestlé, Kellogg, ConAgra, Coca-Cola and others have jumped on the organic bandwagon. In the process of paving themselves a road to the $14 billion a year organic food sales trough, big organic has changed the rules of organic agriculture, snatching it from the calloused hands of the small farmers who created the demand for organic in the first place as a byproduct of their attempts to save the world through farming.

“Organic certification now amounts to a fundamental acceptance of a system and culture that I don’t want to be a part of,” explains Homegrown member Steve Elliot of Lifeline Farms, who has farmed organically for 25 years, but no longer certifies.

And while the Homegrown folks are hardly the only farmers dissatisfied with the corporate takeover of organic, they are, nonetheless, a leading edge in the movement to somewhere else. What separates the Homegrowners from untold legions of idealistic earth-friendly growers is that the Montana Sustainable Growers Union has codified their values in a pledge to which members are actively holding each other via yearly inspections.

Between restaurants, grocery stores, CSA memberships and farmers’ markets, Homegrown farmers were already consistently selling their food back when they were certified organic, and nobody is switching to Homegrown in hopes of grabbing a bigger market share.

And while the recent E. coli outbreak isn’t going to have a lifestyle-changing impact on any farmer’s finances, it is, nonetheless, a signal from the universe that the Homegrowners’ switch is timely. Rising fuel costs, which will make shipping more expensive, and an increase in instances of E. coli and mad cow disease, which give the public more reason to be suspicious of foods grown in faraway places, certainly aren’t hurting the Homegrown farmers. And consumers, who can look their farmer in the eye, can keep eating their spinach.

Ask Chef Boy Ari: Plum overrun

Q: Dear CBA,

My neighbor’s Italian plum tree is dripping with purple fruit, which is now falling on the ground. I asked her if I could harvest it, since she obviously wasn’t, and she said yes.

They’re really good but I still have a big box of plums, and I’m getting kind of worried. How best should I store them?
—Plum Tuckered

A: Dear Tuckered,

They’re actually called Italian prunes, not plums, and they taste even better dried. Cut them in half, remove the pit and place them face-up on a dehydrator tray.

Meanwhile, hats off to the competition. Greg Patent’s monthly column in the McSoulian food section last week focused on a torte made with Italian prunes. Although the recipe, as he acknowledges, is not his own, he wrote about it in such a way that the whole town is buzzing about it. I need two hands to count everyone who’s gushed to me about this torte, which Patent notes can be kept frozen for up to a year. I plan on trying it myself.

For some old-school Flash with a great meat-in-plum-sauce recipe, visit the Indy archives at www.missoulanews.com/Archives/News.asp?no=4345. You can substitute any meat for the rabbit I used in this recipe—last night I used deer.

Finally, here’s a white wine and honey plum sauce recipe given to me by local plumophile Melissa Bangs.

Slice and pit eight plums/prunes, coat with honey and lay face down on a cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes.

In separate pans, simmer one bottle white wine and 1 quart chicken stock over low heat to reduce to half their original volume. Add the reduced wine to the reduced chicken stock. Puree your plums, add to the wine-chicken mixture and let simmer for five minutes on low heat. Salt and pepper to taste. Finish with 2 tablespoons of butter.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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