Sell-By Dates and Food Safety

On Thursday February 14th a large organic producer issued a recall on bagged spinach that had been sold in 39 different states due to concerns that the spinach was contaminated with E. Coli.  The fact that the product had already arrived in those states meant that the spinach was already several days old by Thursday.  And the recall clearly stated that the spinach had a “best by” date of February 25th.  Not, mind you, “throw away on”.Doing the math, this means that the producer of the spinach is claiming that the spinach is still good to eat full two weeks after the day it is harvested.

We don’t put “best by” dates on our produce at Terra Firma.  Not all the crops we grow need to be harvested freshly, almost half the items in your box each week were likely harvested weeks or months prior and stored at the appropriate temperature.  Examples include potatoes, oranges, and winter squash.  We often dig carrots for your boxes on Friday of the week before.   Cabbages store for several weeks.

That said, there are a number of crops that we grow that we always harvest as close as possible to delivery.  Spinach is one of them.  Depending on the weather, we harvest fresh greens one or two days before it arrives at your drop site — during warm weather it is best to give the greens an extra night in the cooler before packing them.

We don’t always get it right with fragile greens — at least once this fall we had problems with the quality of arugula in your boxes during to hot weather.  But we would never, ever harvest spinach or any other leafy greens on a Monday and then wait until the following Tuesday to put them in your CSA boxes.  While the spinach might still be good to eat when it arrived at your house on Wednesday 9 days after we harvested it, it would probably be bad a day or two later.  I would never eat spinach that was two weeks old, and I would never recommend that anyone else do so either.

I don’t know how they come up with “sell by” or “best by” dates for fresh produce, but I do know they are not based on practical science.  Studies have shown that a tiny amount of bacteria in a bag of spinach or other fresh cut greens multiplies exponentially starting 10 days after harvest, especially if the produce is not stored at exactly the right temperature the entire time.  The spinach that made people sick in 2009 was two weeks old, and there are scientists who clearly state that a ten day “use by” date would prevent most or all food poisoning from leafy greens.  Unfortunately, the grocery stores that sell the greens don’t like this idea.

I’ve been spending some time pouring through the 500 plus page new food safety regulations for fresh produce that the FDA has proposed, and I still can’t seem to find anything in there about selling two week-old spinach.  The comment period for the general public to give the government feedback on the rules has just been extended until May 15th. Sometime before then I will provide you with some suggested “talking points” if anyone is interested in participating in the process.

In the meantime, enjoy your TFF spinach.  And if you find yourself shopping for greens in a supermarket, always check the “best by” date.



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