In light of positive health claims, Texas growers have begun producing more baby leaf spinach and have measures in place to ensure its quality and consumer safety, says an industry expert.



"We grow both our processed and fresh spinach for re-packers and don't bag any ourselves," says Ed Ritchie, president of the Wintergarden Spinach Producers Board. "To make sure we have as safe a product as possible, we sanitize all of our mechanical harvesters daily and also clean and oxidate the spinach-processing line each day it's in use."



Almost 100 percent of the state's fresh market spinach comes from the Wintergarden region southwest of San Antonio, Ritchie says. From 1,200 to 1,500 acres in this nine-county region in southwest Texas are currently used to grow fresh-market spinach.



"We have already increased production of fresh-market spinach, and growers want to increase it even more to capitalize on the increased demand, which comes primarily from more health-conscious and affluent consumers," he says.



While processed spinach consumption has increased slightly in the U.S.in recent years, the greatest increase in per capital spinach consumption has been fresh-market spinach, says Jose Pena, Texas Cooperative Extension economist at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Uvalde.



The state's overall spinach production is second only to California's.Recently, however, a fresh-market bagged spinach product from another part of the country was identified as the source of E coli problems.



"Very little of the fresh market spinach grown in Texas is harvested for baby leaf bag sales," says Larry Stein, Extension horticulturist at the Uvalde center. "And we finished our 2006 spinach

production in March and April, so the E. coli situation isn't one affecting Texas spinach at this time. Still, we are mindful of the situation, especially now that we're getting ready again to plant spinach in this region."



"There's a lot that can happen to potentially contaminate the product," says Dr. Frank Dainello, Extension horticulturist for commercial vegetable crops. "Even after the spinach leaves the processing facility, it's exposed to a whole new set of circumstances that may lead to product

contamination."



Processors and supermarkets often conduct third-party audits to check spinach quality, but even these measures cannot always ensure a 100 percent safe product, Dainello says.



"Generally, the most likely source of E. coli contamination in vegetables is bovine manure," says Alex Castillo, associate professor of food microbiology with Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. "It's very difficulty to kill a pathogen once it's in the plant. That's why having practices to prevent initial contamination is so important."



Good safety practices need to be employed at every stage, from growing the product to handling it in the home, Castillo says

.

"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has guidelines for good agricultural practices and good manufacturing practices which greatly reduce the chance of E. coli contamination," he says.



Agricultural guidelines include showing farmers how to guard against soil and water contamination, properly clean equipment for harvesting and use proper hygiene for product handling, Castillo says. Manufacturing guidelines also include good hygiene practices for product handling, along with proper practices for cleaning and sanitizing processing equipment and

surfaces, and keeping food products at the appropriate temperature.



"Some grocery stores also sanitize before putting the product out, but that also may not be sufficient," Castillo said. "And once you get the product home, you need to be very careful not to cross-contaminate from other foods."



To avoid cross-contamination, fresh market spinach should be bagged separately and kept away from direct contact with other foods, he says. And other home food safety measures include washing hands thoroughly before handling the product, using clean cutting boards or surfaces to

further prevent cross-contamination and properly refrigerating the product.



"But the problem of E. coli cannot be addressed only at this link in the chain or any other," Castillo says. "It has to be an integrated approach, and proper hygiene is the key for any part of the process."