By contributor
updated 10/9/2006 7:40:24 PM ET 2006-10-09T23:40:24

Just last week, lettuce packages at an Acme market here sported bright orange tags promising “no spinach” as a reassurance that the greens weren’t tainted with bacteria.

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Monday morning, such labeling seemed like an exercise in futility when a major lettuce producer pulled its product from stores across the country because of fears that yet another leafy vegetable might be deadly.

With the recent spate of food poisonings, consumers are justifiably trepidatious about foods that once seemed so healthy, but which have now become more than a little scary.

“I know they’ve said it’s OK to buy fresh, but how do you know for sure?” says Sue Clark, 42, as she picks through a stack of apples in Acme's produce department.

In just the past month, three people died after eating E. coli-tainted spinach. In Florida, several were hospitalized after drinking carrot juice contaminated with botulism.

“It does seem like the incidence is increasing,” says Dr. Neil Fishman, an infection-control expert and associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

What’s not clear, Fishman says, is whether that’s because more vegetables are being contaminated or because government agencies are doing a better job of tracking the problems.

In recent years much of the reporting has become automated, he says.

Government agencies used to depend on doctors to make handwritten reports, he explains. Nowadays, labs that isolate bacteria in a sample must automatically report this information to the state. “Historically, physicians haven’t done a great job of reporting diseases,” Fishman says.

Even though officials have given spinach the all-clear sign, some consumers are still hesitant to buy the greens fresh.

“I used to buy fresh spinach, but I’ve switched to frozen," says Clark. "I heard on the news that canned and frozen are safe.”

Besides, says the 42-year-old bus driver from Pilesgrove, “frozen lasts longer.”

Carla Lape, a 45-year-old insurance underwriter from Salem, N.J., stops her cart and pauses for a few minutes to share her opinions. “I don’t buy lettuce or spinach from the grocery store any more,” Lape says. “I go to the local farmer’s market because I know where the produce is coming from. We’re lucky to live in a county with such good local produce.”

One of the problems highlighted by the recent reports is the centralization of farming, Fishman says. So, if a big farm in California that ships lettuce from coast to coast develops a contamination issue, that problem becomes national. One way to combat this is to shop at the local farmer’s markets, like Lape does, Fishman says.

A head of iceberg lettuce tops the crammed shopping cart 39-year-old Mary Fitton pushes past piles of lettuce and spinach. Fitton’s 10-year-old daughter tags along beside her.

Nodding to the lettuce, Fitton says she hasn’t changed her shopping habits, but she does take extra care when she washes produce these days.

“I heard a report this morning about the lettuce,” says the Woodstown bookkeeper. “They said you can use soap. When you have small children, you have to worry more because this kind of thing affects them more harshly.”

While extra care in cleaning produce can help, it doesn’t guarantee there will be no traces of bacteria left on food, Fishman says, adding that cooking will make a difference.

While food experts sort out the issues of contamination, it might make sense to consume more frozen vegetables, says Susan Bowerman, assistant director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California at Los Angeles.

The processing that is done to frozen foods makes them safe to eat, Bowerman says. “And from a nutritional standpoint, frozen can actually be superior to fresh,” she adds. “That’s because they are processed so quickly after they are picked.”

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine, Smart Money and Neurology Now.

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