(Oct. 5) LA MIRADA, Calif. — Bagged spinach may be showing up on produce shelves again, but the tremors triggered by the recent E. coli scare are far from over, said A.G. Kawamura, California’s agriculture secretary.

Speaking at the Oct. 4 luncheon meeting of the Fresh Produce & Floral Council, Kawamura said the crisis has left the produce industry with the task of rebuilding consumer confidence in packaged spinach as well as maintaining confidence in other fresh-cut and bagged products.

Risk assessment is “difficult and imprecise,” he said, but even more challenging can be dealing with the perception the public has.

California’s Department of Health Services and the Food and Drug Administration were the point agencies during the spinach scare, he said. He lauded the relatively new PulseNet technology coordinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for helping to locate 10 bags of tainted spinach from diverse locations fairly quickly and then narrowing the source to “a single lot or two.”

Nonetheless, he said, “We’re still going to have a lot of work to do.”

The industry needs to be prepared for such crises by developing “message mapping” and creating plans of action to deal with crises and control consumer perception.

The spinach crisis was only one of several challenges the state’s grower-shippers faced this year. Spring flooding in Northern California, a record heat wave in July and the detection of a peach fruit fly in Fresno that came perilously close to disrupting California’s tree fruit season shook the industry, as well.

Kawamura also discussed the 2007 farm bill, which is in the process of being formulated.

More than half the bill concerns nutrition programs, and up to $2 billion is not being accessed by families who fear a stigma for participating in the program, find participation too complicated or who simply are not aware they are eligible, he said.

Lack of participation is especially unfortunate at a time when inroads are being made toward getting more fruits and vegetables into schools.

Kawamura called for an unprecedented effort on behalf of the state’s Congressional delegation to represent California’s interests in the new farm bill.

Kawamura: Easing spinach fears won’t be easy
Dave Ackerman, vice president of produce and floral for Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, Calif., and master of ceremonies for the Oct. 4 luncheon meeting of the La Mirada-based Fresh Produce & Floral Council, chats with A.G. Kawamura, California’s agriculture secretary, before the meeting.