Calif. Leafy Greens Industry Struggles to Recover

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(Salinas, CA)
Friday, September 14, 2007

One year after E. coli-contaminated spinach sickened 2-hundred people and killed three, a vital California industry continues to recover. There’s a new food safety program in place, as we reported yesterday. But for some companies, sales are still down from before the outbreak. Even when a company does the right thing and recalls some produce that might be contaminated, the entire industry’s image still takes a hit. In the 2nd of a 2-part series, Ben Adler reports on the industry’s long road back to stability.


Andrew Cumming couldn’t have liked what he heard late last month. Nearly a year after the big spinach outbreak, the last thing his company (or the industry) needed was contaminated produce. But here it was: fresh bagged spinach that tested positive for salmonella. So Cumming’s company, Monterey County-based Metz Fresh, did what it had to do: It issued a recall.

 “No matter what the consequences, we took the right actions at the right time with the information we had.”

They caught it in time – hardly any of the contaminated spinach reached grocery store shelves, and a top Food and Drug Administration official says no one got sick. But there were still critics, like State Senator Dean Florez, a Democrat from California’s Central Valley.

“The only improvement in this whole one-year anniversary of e. coli outbreaks is that a retail clerk was able to pull it off the shelf right before a consumer put it in their mouth, and that isn’t food safety.”

Cumming’s company took a significant financial hit, though not as big as last year, when the FDA yanked spinach off the market.

“Overwhelmingly, consumers understand that what we did was the right thing. They appreciate how we handled it.”

It was a different story for Tom Nunes, Jr. when his company recalled its Foxy Brand lettuce last year – mere weeks after the big spinach outbreak. The Foxy lettuce didn’t even have the E. coli strain that makes people sick, only a harmless generic strain. But Nunes says that didn’t matter.

 “There was a period of time when our customers wouldn’t buy from us. They didn’t understand what was going on.”

The industry quickly learned that even if it did what it was supposed to do and caught a contamination early, its image and sales would still suffer. Monterey County grower and shipper Joe Pezzini chairs the board that runs the industry’s new food safety program.

 “If we’re gonna be judged with a broad brush by our weakest link, then that weakest link needs to elevate their game.”

And so California leafy greens companies started their own equivalent of a neighborhood watch program, says Elbie Pretorius, the head of food safety at Capurro Farms.

“If I have something on our ranch, I’ve gotten something. from other companies’ food safety people going, hey, there’s a deer over here, you might wanna go look at, he’s pretty close to your crop. It’s the first time we’re helping each other out, rather than having the competitive environment.”

Sales still lag behind what they should be, Pezzini says, but they are climbing. And that matches up with an extremely unscientific sample of grocery store customers at a Save Mart Supermarket in Sacramento a week ago.

 “I think it’s healthy. I’m not worried about E. coli or whatever the bacteria was that they had. I think it’s fine.” “My young son eats it all the time too when I can sneak it in him. But I’m not scared to have him eat it either.” “Gosh, if I stopped eating everything that I thought was going to affect me, I wouldn’t be eating very much, I guess.”

But as the safety of fresh produce gets more attention than ever before from the government and media, Tom Nunes knows the industry faces its most challenging moments in the years to come.

“We’ve gotta get thru this window. The scrutiny is on us at this particular time. The meat industry’s been able to get through that window, and now you hear about recalls all the time in the meat industry, and the consumer understands that it’s gonna happen. I believe that’s where we’re gonna have to get the consumer – through education or whatnot.”

And thousands of Californians who work in the fresh produce industry – from field workers to individual family farmers – are relying on that to happen.