`The market is dead’ / Spinach warning over E. coli contamination hits N.J. growers with sales drought

(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2006.)

Dan Graiff spent a beautiful Monday afternoon on a tractor, only to come off the field to hear more bad news: Another local farmers market had called to cancel its spinach order.

“Right now, the field is sitting unharvested,” said Graiff, who grows about 40 acres of baby spinach. “There’s no orders right now. No one wants it. The market is dead.”

Graiff’s business appears to be a casualty of the federal Food and Drug Administration’s broad warning to U.S. consumers not to eat fresh spinach. Most grocery stores and farm stands have taken spinach off their shelves. He stands to lose tens of thousands of dollars per week as more than 12,000 pounds of spinach per week goes to rot.

U.S. government health officials continue probing the source of the E. coli contamination that has killed at least one person and sickened at least 109 others. The FDA has linked a California company’s fresh spinach to the outbreak.

Investigators are working to pinpoint the source of the bacteria. Possible sources include contaminated irrigation water, known to be a problem in the state’s Salinas Valley, a major produce-growing area.

FDA inspectors have no evidence of crop tampering. Nonetheless, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is monitoring the situation, FBI spokesman Rich Kolko said. “The FDA has not cleared any products from the list and continues to recommend consumers avoid eating fresh spinach products,” FDA spokeswoman Susan Bro said. New Jersey growers could be hit hard by the FDA warning. The state’s $3.8 million spinach crop is the nation’s fourth largest.

Most New Jersey spinach growers, such as Richard Marolda in Buena Vista, sell their spinach on the fresh market and pick it by hand, unlike the large California companies that use huge machines for processing. Farmers can grow spinach at different times of the year because it’s a durable cold-weather crop.

The current situation has concerned and embittered some growers. Graiff said the FDA gave too broad an advisory.

“Instead of doing it the right way and saying the problem is California, they shut down everyone,” Graiff said, adding that growers throughout the Mid-Atlantic states produce spinach. “There’s nothing wrong with (Mid-Atlantic) product. If they have a car manufacturer with a problem, and it’s Chevrolet, they don’t recall Ford and Chrysler.”

Buena farmer John Formisano was optimistic the current panic would blow over before he harvests his spinach crop in a few weeks. Prices could even rise with California spinach taken off the market.

The current cases are the latest in a string of 19 food-poisoning outbreaks linked to lettuce and spinach since 1995. At least eight were tied to produce grown in the Salinas Valley.

In 2004 and again in 2005, the FDA’s top food safety official warned California farmers they needed to do more to increase the safety of the fresh leafy greens they grow.

“In light of continuing outbreaks, it is clear that more needs to be done,” the FDA’s Robert Brackett wrote in a Nov. 4, 2005, letter.

Suggested actions included discarding produce that comes into contact with floodwaters. The Salinas watershed’s rivers and creeks are known for periodic E. coli contamination, according to Brackett.

The broad national advisory could hit the market well beyond the immediate situation with spinach.

“This is going to carry a stigma, not only into spinach, but also into other processed leafy products,” said Bill Nardelli, a Cedarville farmer and president of the South Jersey Produce Distributors Association.

Natural Selection has maintained its recall of 34 brands of fresh spinach products throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. However, the company said late Sunday the manufacturing codes from packages of spinach that had infected patients turned over to health officials all were from non-organic spinach. The company packages both organic and conventionally grown spinach in separate areas at its California plant.

Those brands include the company’s own labels and those of other companies that had contracts with Natural Selection to produce or package spinach.

Meanwhile, another California company, River Ranch Fresh Foods, added to its recall spring mixes containing spinach sold under the labels Hy-Vee, Fresh N’ Easy and Farmers Market, FDA officials said. All contain spinach purchased from Natural Selection, they said.

The FDA and California Department of Health Services were reviewing irrigation methods, harvest conditions and other practices at farms possibly involved.

The spinach could have been contaminated in the field or during processing. About 74 percent of the fresh-market spinach grown in the U.S. comes from California, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

E. coli cases linked to tainted spinach have been reported in 19 states, with Wisconsin reporting the most cases, including the death of a 77-year-old woman.

In Ohio, state health officials said they were investigating the death of a 23-month-old girl who was sickened by E. coli to determine whether the case was related to the outbreak. The girl’s mother said she often buys bagged spinach.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.


4th – New Jersey’s rank in U.S. fresh spinach production

157,000 pounds – State production of fresh spinach in 2002 (last figures available)

3 – Number of times a year spinach crop is harvested in N.J.

Source: USDA