(Sept. 19) The Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association said in a Sept. 19 briefing that implications on spinach production due to the E. coli outbreak are severe.

The association said because of the Food & Drug Administration alert and media attention, production has shut down not just in the Salinas Valley but nationwide.

Testing for a possible source of the E. coli outbreak was complete at the San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Earthbound Farm facility Sept. 18. Investigators began testing the suspected fields Sept. 19, said Patti Roberts, spokeswoman for the California Department of Health Services.

“It will be eight to 10 days before test results will come back,” said Amy Philpott, vice president of marketing and industry relations for United.

The FDA said during a conference call that as of Sept. 19, the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 131 cases in 21 states, 66 were hospitalized and 20 were Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome cases.

David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said a second death possibly linked to the outbreak is still under investigation.

Philpott said United is looking into the possible financial setback to the produce industry.

She said she couldn’t help but think that other packaged products are being affected.

“This is one of the most significant outbreaks, in terms of scope, we’ve ever had,” she said.

NEGATIVE HALO

Over a 52-week period, ending July 1, total retail sales for all spinach were about $325 million, with more than $293 million in bagged sales, and the category has continued to grow, said Bruce Axtman, president and chief executive officer of the Perishable Group, West Dundee, Ill.

He said that while losses may be significant, “…if looked at as a percentage of total produce sales, bagged spinach is less than 1%.”

“It’s probably not going to be a big hit on total produce, but will consumers spend those dollars on other things?” he said. “There could be a negative halo making some people more cautious of anything they buy in a bag.”

Axtman said that from what he’s seen with past outbreaks, it takes only a matter of weeks before the market rebounds.

“It’s just too early to tell how long it will take,” he said.