Last week while having dinner at a hospital board meeting at the Peabody, I wondered if I should eat the salad – especially the spinach.

It is hard to imagine that spinach, the food of Popeye-the sailor, could be more harmful than healthy, yet such is the case in today’s food industry. Foods travel great distances to come to our table, on average 1500 to 2500 miles. Fresh grapes come from California, cantaloupe and watermelon from South America, and “Maryland” crabs from Indonesia.

Given the distance traveled and the conditions, I am surprised there are not more incidences of food borne illness. For example, a study done by U.S. Department of Agriculture in slaughter plants found 13% of turkeys, 9.1% of chickens and 3.3% of chicken were contaminated by Salmonella bacteria.

The bacteria which caused the illnesses from spinach were the strain of the E. Coli bacteria that are found in our guts all the time. When this strain enters our food supply – it causes terrible illness with fever and bloody diarrhea. What is peculiar about this E. Coli strain (Ecoli O157:H7) is that antibiotics make the illness worse leading to kidney failure.

Food borne illnesses with some 550 outbreaks, annually, affecting over 17,000 people are not going away soon. There is mad cow disease from meats, salmonella in the eggs, E. Coli O157:H7 and cyclospora from fruits and vegetables, ciguatera from Florida’s barracuda, bostulism from improperly canned foods, listeria from raw milk or cheese, vibrio from Gulf coast’s sea food, or traveler’s diarrhea simply from the water in Mexico.

We just need to keep the food borne illnesses contained and under surveillance. If an outbreak occurs – we need to rapidly find and eliminate the source. This job is policed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.

Knowing that the CDC was on vigilance – I ate my spinach salad with some comfort, and I suspect so did Popeye-the sailor.