Farmers say good-bye to spinach

first_imgSALINAS – Farmers in the self-proclaimed “Salad Bowl to the World” started plowing their spinach crops under and laying off workers as government inspectors examined fields and packing houses Tuesday for the source of the deadly E. coli outbreak. After poring over water quality reports, worker hygiene tests and other food safety measures, the inspectors were unable to pinpoint immediately how the bacteria made it into locally grown bagged spinach, causing one death and sickening more than 100 other people across the country. And it is increasingly unlikely they will ever zero in on the source, said Robert Brackett, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. The absence of any immediate evidence of widespread contamination is good news for the industry, but growers and processors say the scare has already done damage to their products’ reputation, and they are wondering how long it will take before consumers feel safe eating spinach again. Each day the FDA keeps the fresh spinach warning in place costs the valley an estimated $1 million in lost sales, local agriculture officials said.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREThe joys and headaches of holiday travel: John PhillipsAt least two lawsuits over youngsters who fell ill already have been filed, in New York and Utah. “If it stays focused on the spinach, it’s still bad,” said Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California. “Worst-case scenario: where consumers don’t get the message this doesn’t mean all vegetables are tainted. It would be devastating.” Spinach was a $325 million industry in the U.S. in 2005, and California produced 74 percent of the nation’s fresh crop and 67 percent of the spinach that gets frozen or canned. The Salinas Valley accounts for roughly three-quarters of the state’s share. With that market disappearing in a matter of days, some valley farmers were already writing off their spinach crops, plowing the fields under and preparing to plant broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage. Joseph Pezzini, vice president of operations for Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville, predicted that many more will follow suit this week unless the FDA quickly lifts its nationwide consumer warning on fresh spinach. “Anything that was ready for harvest on Friday by today is probably over the hill,” said Pezzini. Some spinach farmers also were laying off field hands, but most soon found work picking other crops in what is typically a busy harvest season, said Marc Grossman of the United Farm Workers union. last_img