Do you know where your spinach comes from?

A recent trip south of the border found your valiant writer near Crystal City, Texas – the self-proclaimed Spinach Capital of the World.

A recent trip south of the border found your valiant writer near Crystal City, Texas – the self-proclaimed Spinach Capital of the World. As expected a large figure of Popeye the sailor man was on prominent display to boost the town’s claim to fame. Some of you with long memories will recall that Popeye was a long ago cartoon figure whose super powers were triggered whenever he ate a can of spinach. Curiously, he sometimes consumed it straight through his pipe. One laments how much simpler those past times were for cartoon super heroes. Nowadays your average super hero has to achieve his powers through mutant genetic engineering or being struck by a laser beam. Just eating spinach seems so much simpler to acquiring a super power and its nutritious, too. Incredibly, upon further research, I found there is another town claiming to be the Spinach Capital of the World that being Alma, Arkansas which also has a prominent figure of Popeye making that proclamation. How can this be – two spinach capitals of the world? We should be so lucky – well, there is more to the story.

It seems both spinach capitals have large spinach canning plants in their towns. And depending on the year one or the other may produce more cans of spinach. So, in a way they are both right but in actuality both are wrong as most spinach in the world is grown in China and California. The spinach grown in the two capitals is all canned so they are actually the canned spinach capitals of the world. That caused me to wonder does anyone nowadays actually buy canned spinach – a trip to local large grocery chain found a measly half a dozen cans on sale – not exactly a big seller. Perhaps Americans are more favourable towards eating canned spinach than Canadians as both US spinach capitals claim millions of cans are processed and sold each year. It does appear to be an industry in decline as it is with most canned vegetables in favour of fresh and frozen production and consumption. In fact, fresh spinach marketing is skyrocketing due to consumer fascination with the health benefits of spinach salad – most of it in pre-packaged and ready to eat bags.

California is the centre of spinach growing for the fresh market on an industrial scale. It’s grown elsewhere like New Jersey and Michigan, but only on a seasonal basis. As with most vegetable production, California is king of the hill with over 75 per cent of US production. Canadian spinach production is miniscule with only some localized seasonal production and a commercial greenhouse in Ontario supplying small niche markets. In fact, Canada imports a whopping 47 million pounds of fresh spinach each year from California – that’s 1.4 pounds of spinach for each Canadian. Imports of canned spinach is hard to determine, but I expect it ranks with imports of canned kale. Some canned spinach is imported from China, which has health concerns.

Harvesting of spinach is curiously both highly mechanized and labour intensive depending on the way it is marketed. Intricate spinach-specific harvesting equipment has been created that cut and process spinach by the ton per minute, almost all of it for the ready to eat bag market. On the other hand, fresh unbagged spinach is gathered by hand into bunches – that’s hard stoop labour – yet the price difference between the two methods is not all that different – go figure. After harvest, spinach usually regrows and yields between seven to 12 tons per acre per year, that’s a lot of spinach. Spinach is sensitive to sunshine and can bolt if it gets too much – however plant scientists have developed plants that are less prone to bolting and can grow almost year-around in places like California. That type of production efficiency makes it difficult for other spinach growing areas to compete. Besides, California is near cheap labour to harvest the fresh bunched sector of the market.

There is a worrisome side to spinach production; the fresh product has been implicated in some breakouts of E.coli food poisoning and even botulism. Part of that seems to have to do with the nature of the plant – large flat leaves growing close to the ground that are more prone to pick up the bacteria. Also, it’s been alleged that pathogens may have been brought in through hand harvesting. It would seem that vigorous washing of all spinach is a wise food safety step. Now you know a bit about the fascinating world of spinach production.

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