California Farms Reeling after Spinach Scare
SALINAS, Calif. -- Spinach is back on U.S. store shelves after an E. coli outbreak linked to the vegetable killed three people, but farmers in California expect to suffer huge losses long after publicity recedes.
Dennis Donohue, a grower in Salinas, California and head of the local chamber of commerce, worries the costs of the outbreak will not be limited to spinach growers.
Donohue estimated the Salinas Valley's $180 million spinach industry will suffer a $60 million hit and said demand for all its vegetables -- a $3 billion industry -- may also wilt if consumers associate all bagged produce with the outbreak.
"Spinach had its own set of issues but there appeared to be an effect on all packaged products," Donohue said.
Donohue does not grow spinach but his company, European Vegetable Specialties, expects $500,000 to be shaved from its bottom-line as the outbreak's ripple effect strikes all producers of bagged fresh produce in the Salinas Valley.
"We're in unchartered waters in the sense that we had an entire commodity shut down," Donohue said.
The nationwide scare came in mid September when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers to avoid bagged fresh spinach -- one of the Salinas Valley's best-selling products -- amid a probe into an outbreak of the toxic E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. It killed three Americans and sickened 200.
The warning struck Salinas Valley spinach growers just as they were to harvest their summer crop. Most had to plow under their fields, killing hopes for profits this year from bagged, fresh spinach whose sales have soared in recent years.
TRACING TOXIC BACTERIA
Nearly black soil attests to the Salinas Valley's productive capacity and the cool winds from the nearby Pacific Ocean have helped turn it into "America's salad bowl."
Fearful of further crippling losses, farmers in the area are now looking for any vulnerabilities in the growing chain. Growers say they have already implemented many safeguards to help detect and contain problems.
In the recent case, close monitoring of the shipments helped authorities trace the source of the E. coli.
"I don't know if they've ever had this much evidence," said Joseph Pezzini, vice president of operations at Ocean Mist Farms on the northern edge of the Salinas Valley.
Coded stickers on bags led to processors, whose records pointed to growers. They led investigators to specific fields where the toxic E. coli strain was matched in the dung of beef cattle in neighboring pastures. Each step has helped close in on the possible source and means of contamination.
Officials ruled out farm workers and field equipment. Ocean Mist, for example, steam cleans its gear daily, and workers only walk on paths or through harvested areas to portable toilets outfitted with hand-washing stations in plain view.
They wear rubber gloves to pick vegetables, which are washed with drinking water. The company adds chlorine to the water and the vegetables are bagged and boxed in the field, not by an off-site processor. And the company can trace each bag.
"We can get it back to the crew and the person who packed it," Pezzini said, standing next to a crew picking, sorting, trimming, bagging and boxing romaine lettuce hearts.
But no one knows if the same safeguards are used at the sites suspected of being involved in the Septemnber outbreak. They have not been identified and speculation is rife in the valley that farm practices there may have broken down.
Some speculate regional aquifers may be transporting E. coli from distant upstream cattle pastures.