- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Spinach farmers say they are heartened by the government’s announcement that it’s safe to eat most spinach, but they feel uneasy about their industry’s future, knowing it may take time to win back public confidence.

During the two-week warning about E. coli in fresh spinach, growers said they re-examined the safety of their operations, anguished over the suffering of the 187 persons who were sickened and one who died, and weathered significant losses as they watched crops go to waste.

“Everybody’s just trying to regroup,” said Teresa Thorne of the industry group Alliance for Food and Farming.

It’s too early to tell how hard the industry was hit, but agriculture analysts said unprecedented economic damage was likely. In California, where three-quarters of all domestically grown spinach is harvested, farmers could endure up to $74 million in losses, according to researchers working with the Western Growers Association, which represents produce farmers in California and Arizona.

Last year’s spinach crop in California was valued at $258.3 million, and each acre lost amounts of about $3,500 for the farmer.

The government gave a partial endorsement to the industry Friday, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announcing that most spinach is now “as safe as it was before this event.”

Growers on California’s Central Coast have four or five weeks to harvest before shutting down for the winter, when spinach production moves to the southern valleys and Arizona. Because they stagger plantings to allow for an uninterrupted supply, many growers still have young greens maturing.

When California Farm Bureau Federation officials visited the Salinas Valley on Friday to meet with farmers, they found fields of overgrown spinach, too big for the processors who had ordered them under contract, farm bureau spokesman Dave Kranz said.

“Farmers are just waiting to see if they’ll have orders,” Mr. Kranz said.

Growers are trying to salvage what they can of their crops, but many say a loss of public confidence is the biggest threat to the industry. Before the E. coli outbreak, health-conscious Americans had driven up demand for fresh spinach in salads and other meals. California farmers have more than doubled the amount of acres dedicated to spinach to keep up with consumption, from 15,000 acres in 2001 to 31,000 in 2005.

Some farmers worry that consumers will look askance at the convenient bagged spinach.

Still, farmers say they are “relieved that the market is open, and they’re determined to win consumer confidence back,” Mr. Kranz said. “They’re really trying to address the public health aspect because that’s what’s going to make a difference in the long run.”

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