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A Bitter Harvest for Spinach Growers

The E. coli scare comes just as thousands of acres in California are ready to be picked.

September 16, 2006|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

The federal warning that fresh packaged spinach is responsible for an E. coli outbreak nationwide could not have come at a worse time for California growers and produce packers.

Thousands of acres of the crop are ripe for picking in the Salinas Valley and other regions in California, which produces nearly three-quarters of the fresh spinach grown in the U.S.

"We have hundreds of thousands of dollars of spinach out in the fields right now," said Dale Huss, vice president of production for Ocean Mist Farms Inc. in Castroville. "Our customers are pulling the product off of shelves. This is a panic."

Late Friday, federal health officials tentatively linked the E. coli outbreak to spinach from Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista, Calif.

The Food and Drug Administration said the outbreak has killed one person and sickened nearly 100 people in 20 states. Since Thursday, supermarkets nationwide have removed spinach from their produce sections, and restaurants have taken the leafy greens off their menus.

Huss said the sudden collapse of the spinach market was especially frustrating for him because his farm passed an FDA inspection last week.

"We have not had any problems," he said.

Other growers also voiced dismay.

"We're the ones paying the price," said Bob Martin, general manager of Rio Farms in King City. "It's a sad day that this has to happen to this industry."

California farmers sell $115 million of spinach a year, a small slice of the state's $31-billion farm economy, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Americans buy about $250 million of fresh spinach annually from supermarkets, according to industry estimates.

The popularity of spinach as a healthful food has prompted California growers to increase acreage devoted to the crop by 63% to 31,000 acres last year compared with 2000, according to the department.

"This has been a great growth category for us," said Huss of Ocean Mist. "It has become one of our most important crops."

The state also is a big player in the frozen and canned spinach market, supplying more than two-thirds of domestic production.

Growers are hoping that when the sources of the contamination are identified, "the innocent players will be able to start selling again," said Tim Chelling, spokesman for Irvine-based Western Growers, the main trade association for produce farmers in California and Arizona.

If the produce isn't cleared for sale in the next few days, it's likely that tons will spoil, said Steven Koike, a farm advisor and spinach expert with the University of California Cooperative Extension in Salinas.

"You can't store spinach for a long time, as is evidenced by the stuff in my refrigerator," Chelling said.

Koike said it was too early to know whether the outbreak would scare consumers away from spinach once it returns to the market. Past E. coli outbreaks linked to California lettuce and almonds did not hurt those commodities.

For now, consumers should understand that the outbreak concerns only spinach, said Steve Dickstein, vice president of marketing for Ready Pac Foods Inc. in Irwindale.

"No lettuce, fruits or vegetables have been connected to this," he said.

Ready Pac has taken all of its spinach products off the market, even though none have been linked to the illnesses, he said.

Some consumers are taking the FDA warning in stride.

"I eat spinach-based salads quite often," said Richard Rorex of Apple Valley. "As far as worry about E. coli, no. I even like hamburgers rare and definitely my steaks barely warm. I figure that if I haven't been affected by food poisonings in the last 70 years, the next 35 are a breeze."

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Alana Semuels and Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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