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Sales of spinach remain weak

The recall of the leafy green lasted only two weeks in September, but demand is still off by about 40% to 50%, growers and analysts say.

March 24, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Eat your spinach? Mom's advice is falling prey to food safety fears as many consumers continue to steer clear of the leafy green, months after last year's recall and E. coli outbreak.

The advisory by the Food and Drug Administration not to eat fresh spinach because of suspected contamination by E. coli bacteria lasted less than two weeks in September, but the spinach industry has yet to recover.

"We are struggling to get back on our feet. We are at about 50% of our former demand," said Dale Huss, vice president of production for Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms Inc., which grows spinach and other produce on 20,000 acres in California, Arizona and Mexico.

Industrywide sales of packaged spinach have dropped about 40% from the annual rate of about $240 million in recent years, said Marty Ordman, a vice president at Dole Food Co., a Westlake Village-based produce company.

The average grocery store now sells about $183 of spinach a week, a 54% decline from before the national recall that resulted from the FDA advisory, said Perishables Group, a Chicago-based produce consulting firm.

That's because of shoppers like Don Warren, a retired real estate broker in Carpinteria, Calif.

"I was never a big fan of raw spinach and am even less so now," Warren said. When he buys bagged spinach from his local Costco Wholesale Corp. store, he cooks it.

"I like to make a big wilted spinach salad," Warren said. "I cook it up in an electric skillet and then add blue cheese. The high temperature would kill any E. coli."

On Friday, California and federal health investigators said the pathogen responsible for the outbreak, a strain called E. coli O157:H7, came from a San Benito County field leased to Mission Organics, a spinach grower. The outbreak killed three people and sickened hundreds more. The produce was sold under the Dole label.

The incident has had a lasting effect on consumer attitudes toward spinach and even other produce, said William K. Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"This was a signal event," Hallman said. "Even people who did not eat spinach before the recall changed their behavior. Some stopped buying bagged lettuce and others wash their produce more thoroughly."

The institute surveyed 1,200 consumers in November and found that 87% were familiar with the recall and that almost 31% thought it was still in effect or weren't sure whether it had ended.

Almost a fifth of those surveyed also said they had stopped buying other bagged produce because of the spinach recall.

Before the recall, Americans consumed about $3 billion of bagged lettuce annually, but they are buying 6% to 8% less these days, primarily because of the spinach scare, said Dole Food's Ordman.

"The industry is taking steps to communicate to people the health benefits of eating fresh spinach and salads," Ordman said, noting a recent upswing in sales.

"It is taking some time, but the market is coming back."

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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