PUBLISHED: 4:52 PM on Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Keep it clean, stay strong to the finish

Blow me down. Spinach can make you sick.

The news a few weeks ago that tainted spinach containing the E. coli virus had sickened more than 100 people and killed one elderly woman crushed salad bars around the nation. Stores and restaurants immediately pulled bagged spinach from the shelves.

This reportedly will be the case for another three weeks as authorities look for the exact cause of the outbreak.

Early indications point to California-based Natural Selection Foods, the nation's largest provider of organic produce.

The reports said that tainted irrigation water could have caused the problem.

The incident points to a weak spot in the way we produce our nation's food. With just a few growers providing most of the nation's food supply, a problem like this shuts down an entire food variety.

Proponents of local farms will no doubt point to this outbreak as a reason to support the "eat local" food philosophy.

No cases have yet been listed in Alaska among the 19 states affected.

That's good news for us, but we can't be too careful. E. coli is some nasty stuff.

It causes severe cramping, nausea, diarrhea and can cause kidney failure. And the elderly and very young face a higher risk of dying from the sickness.

Washing suspected spinach will not kill the E. coli in this case; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said you have to cook it at 160 degrees for at least 15 seconds.

There are other things we can do in the kitchen to protect our families from food-borne illnesses.

These tips may sound basic, but ask yourself if you've ignored any of this advice:

• A kitchen isn't properly equipped until it has a bottle of antibacterial strength hand soap by the sink. Clean hands are a must before and during the cooking process.

• Purchase an instant-read thermometer and have a chart of safe cooking temperatures posted somewhere in the kitchen.

• Although washing fruits and vegetables won't kill E.coli, it will get rid of other bacteria. There are also antibacterial sprays that thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables.

• Don't let food sit around. Leftovers need to be refrigerated within two hours of being prepared.

• Have two dedicated cutting boards - one for meat/fish/poultry and one for vegetables. Sanitize boards and cooking surfaces with three tablespoons household bleach in one gallon hot water. Wipe wet surfaces with paper towels to dry.

• Try to keep a dry work surface. Wipe the work area down frequently with paper towels.

• Never use the same knife you used on raw meat/fish/poultry to cut vegetables. A simple wash under hot water isn't good enough. It needs a thorough cleaning before being used again.

• Disinfect dish towels and sponges. Put them in a bucket containing one gallon of water and 3/4 cup of household bleach. Sponges can also be disinfected in a microwave or by washing in the dishwasher.

• Meat/fish/poultry need to be marinated in the refrigerator. They also should be defrosted in the refrigerator.

• Raw meat/fish/poultry should be double wrapped to contain juices.

• Don't place raw meat/fish/poultry on top of other foods in the refrigerator. Place these items on a tray or a plate to catch any leaking juices.