Local growers brace for huge losses following E. coli outbreak.
Thursday, September 21, 2006
When Grower-Shipper Association president Jim Bogart answered his phone earlier this week, he sounded like he was spinning in a vortex of information overload. For the preceding days, the local ag industry had been dealt a devastating hand: Salinas Valley spinach had been linked to an outbreak of E. coli. Marion Graff, 77, of Wisconsin was dead, and more than a hundred others nationwide had fallen sick since Aug. 25.
Bogart says Grower-Shipper members are scrambling. Thirty-four brands of bagged spinach have been recalled, grocery chains have been flooding the office with calls and a Seattle law firm has filed federal suits in Wisconsin, Oregon and California against local growers. Millions of dollars worth of Salinas Valley spinach crops have been—or may soon be—ripped out, tested and trashed.
The ramifications of the outbreak will no doubt take their toll.
“Local ag is a $3.4 billion industry annually,” Bogart says. “In 2005, spinach made up $188,224,000 of that. I anticipate the industry will take a very heavy hit. It’s too early to know what it will be, but it will hurt.”
“Local ag is a $3.4 billion industry. The industry will take a very heavy hit.”
Earthbound Farm, operating under the name Natural Selection Foods, has been linked to the E. coli outbreak. But, says Bogart, the outbreak is going to hurt everyone. “If the spinach industry is affected, it affects the shipper, the grower, the farmworker, and everyone in the production chain,” he says. “We’re talking about jobs here.
“My fear is that a family that’s been in farming for six generations growing spinach will lose their business. The farmworkers who may have been working those fields for those same generations, maybe they’re out of a job too.”
Calls to Earthbound Farm were referred to the Web site. “We would like to reiterate our concern for everyone who has fallen ill,” reads one online statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with every one of them, and we and others in our industry are continuing to work with federal and state authorities to find the source of the contamination.”
The recent E. coli outbreak came on the heels of other bad news. Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation into Salinas Valley lettuces to determine why eight E. coli outbreaks have been linked to local produce over the past decade, sickening 217 people and killing two.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, E. coli lives in the intestines of healthy animals and can infiltrate crops via rivers, irrigation systems, fertilizing or human contamination. Consumption of infected product—salad or undercooked meat and unpasteurized dairy products—triggers the infection. Thoroughly cooking tainted product can kill E. coli; washing does not. Once ingested, E. coli, or Escherichia coli, produces a virulent toxin that induces vomiting, bloody diarrhea and can lead to kidney failure or death.
That’s what happened to 16-month-old Anna Gimmestad of Evans, Colo. after she drank E. coli-infected Odwalla apple juice in 1996. Dozens more got sick. Odwalla sales dropped 90 percent; its stocks plummeted 35 percent. The company paid out millions in fees and settlements.
In 1993, undercooked Jack-in-the-Box burgers caused an E. coli outbreak that sickened 600 and killed four. The company paid millions in clean-up, implementation of new protocol, training and lawsuits.
The financial hit may not be any less for local growers, but chances are good that Earthbound will recover quickly. While consumers in the ‘90s could have opted for a different brand of juice or switched to a different fast-food chain, Salinas Valley growers provide the nation with 80 percent of its lettuce and spinach. Local experts say sheer volume alone will demand the industry move hard and fast to find a solution.
“Companies will need to demonstrate effectively that they’ve identified the problem, they’ve put things into place to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and they need to keep the public informed along the way,” says public relations expert Jim Graham. “No amount of PR will help unless the company executives are committed to doing the right thing by taking responsibility for what happened and committing to taking whatever action is required to fix the problem.”
Earthbound has been quick to take responsibility, ensuring the public that the company is doing everything it can to solve the problem. Earthbound’s Web site continues to update company actions—including sanitation efforts, recalls and plant monitoring—regularly.
By Sept. 18, Earthbound had announced that its organic spinach had not been linked to E. coli and was safe.
The FDA quickly fired back. “The FDA has not cleared any product from the list, and consumers should continue to avoid eating spinach products,” says spokeswoman Susan Bro.
Earthbound quickly updated its Web site: “No organic products, including Earthbound Farm brand spinach or other products, have been linked to this outbreak at this time. This does not mean that organic products have been cleared.”
Also Monday, reports swirled that Salinas’ River Ranch Farms was also recalling all of its spinach products. River Ranch quickly corrected the erroneous information. River Ranch was not recalling its bagged spinach but was instead recalling the Spring Mix Natural Selection bagged under the River Ranch name, just like 33 other companies who sold Natural Selection spinach under their own names had done.
Bogart says local farmers are committed to making it right. “Food safety is the priority in this industry,” he says, “and will continue to be that way. Without food safety, the industry fails. This is the critical part. We’ll figure it out. We’ll fix it.”
Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, says the best the industry can hope for is a better way to deal with E. coli.
“As long as there is this kind of bacteria that can cause harm, there’s always the potential for an outbreak,” he says. “In the last year, the industry began an effort to construct guidelines to prevent outbreaks. The issue is now and will continue to be, ‘Let’s figure out what more we can do and do it.’”
Perkins says the financial fallout is inevitable and is certain it will be astronomical. But, he says, “It’s to such a degree that we can’t focus on that anymore. The outcome we can aim for now is a better understanding of the practices that are effective so that no one else gets sick. Period. That’s the long-term. That’s how Salinas growers will get through this.”