(Sept. 28) That spinach sales were starting to bounce back slightly in the wake of an E. coli outbreak that reached into 26 states and Canada came as only a blip of hope to an industry worth more than $330 million in sales per year.
The real hurdle, produce industry leaders were saying Sept. 28, was in finding a way to turn that bounce into a full-scale resuscitation.

The first step, said Amy Philpott, vice president of marketing and industry relations for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, was to hope the Food and Drug Administration would quickly find the cause of the outbreak of E. coli O157:H7, which sickened 183 people and killed one. Two others deaths were under investigation, according to the FDA.

“We’re strongly encouraging them to finish their investigation as soon as possible,” Philpott said Sept. 28. “It’s important that they further narrow their investigation so those who are not implicated can begin to ship.”

Investigators from the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and California state health officials narrowed the origin of the outbreak to Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties in California. Spinach grown elsewhere was cleared for shipment, although the government was advising consumers not to buy or eat spinach that they cannot verify came from areas outside those three counties.

Meanwhile, shippers in those counties whose fields are clean of bacteria are suffering, Philpott said.

“We have seen spinach come back into the market, but it’s still important that FDA further narrow it because there are growers in that area that weren’t implicated,” she said.

The industry has been working on ways to resuscitate the spinach business, which this year, was projected to log $293 million in bagged and $31 million in bulk sales for the year ending July 1, according to ACNielsen.

“We’re working with our other association partners to begin to formulate an industrywide recovery plan,” Philpott said.

Central to that plan is consumer perception, she noted.

“At the moment, we’re focusing on (public relations) at the consumer level,” she said. “We also need to reach out to our members and the media. So we have to consider several audiences when we put together that plan.”

When that plan will be completed was still in question Sept. 28, Philpott said.

Greg Veneziano, produce and floral director at Bozzuto’s Inc., Cheshire, Conn., which distributes produce to more than 700 retail stores in the Northeast, said spinach sales were sluggish.

“Some people are buying, and some people are choosing to wait,” he said, adding that his clients were buying savoy spinach from Colorado. “So, we’re selling it, but we have very, very slow sales.”

Spinach sales were about 20% of normal, Veneziano estimated.

The slowdown has slopped over into sales of other leafy products, Veneziano said.

Spinach sales see limited rebound
NBC newsman James Hatori interviews Joe Pezzini, vice president of operations for Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif., about the FDA warning against buying and consuming spinach grown in three California counties.