Debate Continues Over Safety of Spinach, Other Leafy Greens

Hollister
– It’s been almost six months since a nationwide E. coli
outbreak linked to spinach grown in San Benito County sickened
hundreds and killed three.
Hollister – It’s been almost six months since a nationwide E. coli outbreak linked to spinach grown in San Benito County sickened hundreds and killed three.

And in those six months, wary consumers have been slow to start eating spinach again.

Growers and packers, who could lose up to $74 million in sales because of the outbreak, have been working to develop and implement a safety program and win back consumer confidence.

But one national consumer group has come out against the industry’s new self-regulating California Leafy Green Marketing Agreement, saying it doesn’t offer enough protection to the public. Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, released a statement this week calling for government regulation of the lettuce and spinach industry’s safety practices.

Here in Hollister, however, people seem to think the industry is on the right track with its new safety program.

Frank Veltri, who was coming out of Nob Hill Friday morning, said he has no concerns when it comes to eating spinach.

“I think the problem that they have, they’ve got a handle on it,” Veltri said.

Kristi Haas of Hollister said her family hasn’t stopped eating spinach and trusts the industry’s safety practices.

“They are taking the necessary safety precautions,” Haas said.

Jim Gibson, who owns Su Supermercado on Fourth Street, Hollister Super on Third Street and Windmill Market in San Juan Bautista, said his spinach sales have been steadily improving in the past few months, but that sales are still only at about 50 percent of what they were before the outbreak.

“We’re selling more spinach than we did (shortly after the E. coli outbreak),” Gibson said. “But it’s slow.”

Megan Ward, who owns Mainstreet Bistro in Hollister, said the spinach salad was the most popular item on her menu before the outbreak. Although the salad’s popularity declined in the aftermath of the outbreak, Ward said her patrons rarely shy away from ordering items containing spinach.

“One person asks for no spinach every three to four weeks,” Ward said.

The debate continues on how to best ensure the safety of raw vegetables.

State Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, introduced legislation this month calling for state-run, industry-funded inspections of the spinach and lettuce industry.

U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, the Democrat who represents San Benito County and the rest of California’s 17th District in Congress, took a different approach this month. Farr introduced a bill that would authorize $26 million for fresh produce safety research and provide relief to those still suffering financially from September’s E. coli outbreak.

So far, the leafy green industry’s growers and handlers have been the only ones to actually get safety guidelines into practice.

The marketing agreement, adopted in early February, would require handlers of fresh spinach and other leafy vegetables to voluntarily abide by safety guidelines designed to prevent food-borne illness. Under the agreement, a mark will be printed on bagged greens to show a handler’s compliance with the safety standards. The next step is a marketing order, which would require all California leafy green growers to follow a high standard of safety practices.

Richard Silva, vice president of the San Benito County Farm Bureau, said handlers and growers have acted quickly to develop and implement new safety standards.

“The advantage to the marketing order is an immediate response to the situation,” Silva said. “And that is something that the government is never very good at doing.”

As Silva and other growers gear up to plant the year’s first spinach crops next week, he said they are already addressing safety concerns, such as planting in locations to minimize contamination risks.

“Everything is being dictated by food safety,” Silva said.

Michael Van Cassell covers public safety for the Free Lance. He can be reached at 831-637-5566 ext. 335 or [email protected]

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