Investigating the wreckage after an outbreak of food-borne disease is a bit like rummaging through the ruins of a hurricane.
In the rubble, the blameworthy and the innocent are hard to tell apart - and, of course, spin doctors are always among the first at the disaster scene.
Which is why it's so difficult to sort out the causes of the E. coli infection of California spinach that has killed at least one person and sickened almost 200, leaving many with serious health disorders across the U.S. and perhaps into Canada.
Are we to pin the outbreak on a new breed of extremist bacteria, the use of animal manure as fertilizer, ineffective government regulation, the concentration of the salad industry in a few California counties - or is it all just the flotsam and jetsam carried along by a random imbalance in life's chaos?
Given the way food-borne diseases captivate the North American food imagination, the future of how and where salad greens are grown may well be decided by who wins the war of the spinach spin.
Ironically, September was National Food Safety Education Month in the U.S., and the propaganda machine was primed to go. But the food safety lens put on this story is itself a problem.
There's a long history of food scares being used to increase the concentration of ownership and control in the food industry. The classic example is Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, a book that ended up being used by giant meatpackers to consolidate their triumph over regional abattoirs.
Food fears have also been used to drive an industrialization agenda that promises the kind of standardization and quality control of food that factories deliver for widgets - so much safer and more error-free than anything nature provides.
"Eating no longer needs to be a deadly game of Russian roulette," says Dennis Avery of the Center for Global Food Issues, a stink tank heavily financed by major food, chemical and seed companies. Avery, the author of Saving The Planet With Pesticides And Plastic (he's not joking), has used the spinach debacle to go on the media warpath against organic practices such as composted manure fertilizers - a reminder, known to all who compost manure, that the source of manure always needs to be checked.
The fact is that the rate of both mild and serious food-borne infections has been going down steadily for the last 100 years, and many severe food-based health threats have little to do with food safety. Think of obesity, starvation, osteoporosis, diabetes, colon and prostate cancer or heart disease, to start with, not to mention whatever effects we are getting from the plastics that baby spinach greens travel the world in.
Because of all this, we need to keep an eye out for the unintended consequences of putting food under a narrow safety microscope.
If some of the new and persuasive articles in livestock science journals are to be believed, the dangerous expression of E. coli - E. coli 0157:H7, now identified as the culprit in the spinach disaster - probably comes from problems inherent in the food system.
E. coli bacteria are almost always present in human and other animal stomachs, and don't do much harm. But the "bad" E. coli, which is fairly recent, may come from over-application of antibiotics in factory barns, which gives dangerous variations in bacteria an advantage they wouldn't enjoy in nature. The indiscriminate antibiotics kill off all the bacteria in an animal's digestive system that would otherwise challenge and compete with aberrant strains such as E. coli 0157:H7.
There may also be a major problem fattening livestock quickly by feeding them grains rather than the rough grasses they evolved to digest. Some agricultural experts argue that the resulting imbalance in digestive acids creates a niche for the bad E. coli.
If this hunch proves correct, the remedy may lie in feeding free range animals grass, and letting biology and its feedback systems do more of the grunt work of safety inspections.
It's likely that the spinach crop was contaminated by manure carrying bad E. coli, and the manure may have been applied directly to the soil or indirectly through irrigation systems contaminated by manure. This is not an argument against manure, which has been one of the major and time-tested sources of renewed and fertilized soil over the millennia.
But it is a reminder that manure needs to be composted (mixed with carbon-rich materials such as straw and left to heat to about 55°C., thereby killing off pathogens - nature's gentle form of pasteurization). That's required by organic, but not standard-issue government, regulations. And the composted manure should be applied before planting, not after.
It's hard for governments to mend their ways on agri issues, because they've given the green light to factory barns that generate manure in staggering quantities. The spinach industry has much less economic weight than the meat industry, so it doesn't rank in terms of government priorities.
Indeed, the lack of regulation of food safety practices in the fruit and veggie sectors is, shall we say, sickening. There have been a score of bad E. coli contamination problems in the salad bowl counties of California over 15 years, but U.S. government inspectors have not cracked down.
A November 2005 letter from United States Department of Agriculture inspectors begged industry leaders to upgrade practices, since "in light of continuing outbreaks it is clear that more needs to be done."
No orders can be imposed on U.S. farms and many factories, the way they can be in Canada. But, needless to say, Canadian inspectors would never turn back shipments from such a regime, even if such moves protected local farmers.
Three counties in California now produce 4 per cent of the world's salad greens, a huge proportion compared to any place but China, which grows 75 per cent. There is no logic in California's concentration, especially for crops that do well on sandy soils and thrive in cool, even frosty, weather.
If a safety lesson is to be learned from the spinach mess, it's about the need to prioritize local production, make sure it's done on a scale where natural feedback and control systems have a positive impact and dangerous livestock practices aren't followed.
It will take a Popeye to strong-arm that message through the food safety debate, but maybe spinach can do it.