Apr 7, 2007
Growers, Customers Cautious As Spinach Returns To Stores

Spinach growers, processors and industry groups are working to restore public trust and get their product back on store shelves.

The source of an outbreak was narrowed to three California counties Sept. 21, but growers and processors are still feeling the repercussions of the broad advisory released by the FDA Sept. 14.

Dondee Lindenborn, co-owner of Pentagon Produce in Uvalde, Texas, said his company is losing between $200,000 and $250,000 a week from lost sales.

“It’s really been a catastrophe,” Lindenborn said. “We were all hoping to see the market come back this week.”

Pentagon grows about 600 acres of Savoy spinach in Colorado and another 600 acres in Texas and Arizona. Lindenborn said they’ve turned under about 90 acres, but the spinach that was shipped before the outbreak was turned back, so they also had to pay for shipping and disposal of that. There’s another 210 acres to harvest in Colorado, and Lindenborn said he hoped there would be a market for it. Pentagon is waiting to see if the market bounces back before planting at its other farms.

“We just wish the FDA would have handled it as a normal recall,” he said. “We feel like this recall has been unprecedented.”

Many in the industry agree. Industry groups have been fielding calls from members and distributing information to them as it becomes available.

“Everybody wants this resolved yesterday,” said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA). “This was almost unprecedented, shutting down an entire industry.”

PMA supported FDA’s decision for a broad advisory because there was evidence that tainted product was still in stores, and cases of illness were still being reported. PMA is working with its members, other trade groups and FDA to rebuild the public’s view of spinach and get the product back on the market.

“Public trust has taken a big hit,” Means said.

Restoring the public’s trust in spinach would take “more than a PR campaign. There has to be substance to it.”

Lindenborn said Pentagon’s customers have been cautious, but some stores are beginning to carry spinach. He said some customers were requiring affidavits that affirmed the company’s spinach was not grown in the implicated counties in California.

“We are seeing spinach in stores,” Means said. “Product is coming back into the marketplace.”

FDA announced Sept. 23 that spinach grown in areas other than the three counties in California is safe to eat. That was a big step, Means said, but FDA needs to go a step further and narrow down the source to just the companies involved.

Five companies issued recalls as a result of the outbreak. Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista, Calif., was the first, recalling all spinach products the 30 brands it packs for. River Ranch Fresh Foods, Salinas, Calif., RLB Food Distributors, West Caldwell, N.J., S.T. Produce, Seattle, and Pacific Coast Fruit Company, Portland, Ore., also issued recalls because the spinach used in their products was supplied by Natural Selections.

The spinach outbreak affected more than 180 people in 26 states, with about half of those hospitalized. There were 26 cases of a form of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome and one death. Two more deaths are under investigation. The outbreak is the largest leafy green outbreak, which prompted FDA to add spinach to the Lettuce Safety Initiative.

Thirteen people who ate fresh spinach and became ill have retained Bill Marler, an attorney who’s represented thousands of patients infected by E. coli. According to Marler’s Web site, he is investigating 18 more cases in seven states. He has already filed three lawsuits, naming Natural Selection Foods in all three and Dole Fresh Vegetables in two. In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Marler said an E. coli infection is worth between $25,000 and $500,000, and an infection that causes a form of kidney failure is worth between $1 million and $15.6 million. Marler takes 35 percent of settlements in fees from adult cases, and 25 percent in fees from child cases.

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