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E. Coli Scare May Have Wider Impact

Salinas Valley growers fear possible long-term effects of the concerns over tainted spinach

Sep 20, 2006 | Los Angeles Times

Much food lore has sprung from the Salinas and nearby valleys, this fecund farm country that stretches from oak-studded hills to the fertile bottom land and packing plants of Salinas and King City.

This is Steinbeck country, and the National Steinbeck Center on Salinas' Main Street pays homage to the farming themes of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Cannery Row."

Organic farming has deep roots here, and so does the phenomenon of bagging fresh greens. Together the two trends joined to produce Natural Selection, the industry giant that has seen explosive growth amid farm fields and sunflowers in San Juan Bautista.

Now, with fresh spinach linked to an unusually virulent outbreak that has killed one and sickened 130, the region has vaulted to new fame: E. coli capital of America.

In a mere five days, a whirlwind of health warnings and media reports has tarnished the reputation of its growers and processors so severely that experts predict some farms with large spinach crops may fail. Though they have tentatively linked some of the illnesses to Natural Selection, federal regulators have, in an abundance of caution, recommended against eating any fresh spinach, organic or otherwise. That has brought the spinach harvest to an abrupt halt.

Television crews have crisscrossed the valley, filming the heavily guarded gates at Natural Selection and scenes of verdant spinach fields soon to be plowed under.

They zoomed in this week on the two-story Popeye mural outside River Ranch Fresh Foods, a Salinas firm that was forced to recall three kinds of spinach-laced spring mix it purchased from Natural Selection.

Many growers are upset by the media's juxtaposing those valley images with scenes of frightened consumers and terse government regulators addressing the dangers of E. coli O157:H7. Most have declined to talk to reporters, fearing that their economic concerns will be mistaken for greed, especially as more illnesses are reported nationwide.

With farmers reluctant to speak for themselves, Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, has shouldered the responsibility of speaking to journalists about the problem in a field near his offices in Salinas.

Perkins stresses to reporters that growers put health and safety first ahead of their own financial fears but he adds that the growers hope the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will soon narrow its focus. Officials have not identified a contaminated field or a mechanism by which the disease has spread. E. coli is present in cow manure and can spread to crops through flooding or in dust or droppings from birds that have ingested the manure.

"I think it's probably troubling to everyone that they have not been able to narrow this down," Perkins said Monday.

As FDA and state health officials continue to sift through records and invoices at Natural Selection, investigators on Tuesday began visiting nine farms linked to the outbreak by product codes from bags of spinach or salad greens containing spinach obtained from consumers who became ill.

Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA's food safety division, said that the number of growers under investigation could increase. He didn't rule out additional recalls beyond those already issued by Natural Selection and Salinas-based River Ranch Fresh Foods, covering 34 brands. So far, most of those who have fallen ill said they ate spinach distributed by one of the two suppliers, Acheson said. But some did not.

"I'm hopeful that we'll find a cause that we can specifically rectify, whether it be at the processing plant or on the farm," Acheson said. "But there's a realistic possibility that we will not."

In that case, he said, regulators may have to consider tightening precautions or heightening regulation.

"We would need to do that before we could allow spinach back on the market," he said. "But we're not there yet."

In an outbreak, the sheer scale of produce farming in the Salinas Valley works against growers.

"If we centralize production, [with] most of our produce in one area, it creates the opportunity for big problems to occur," said Samuel Fromartz, author of "Organic Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew," which looks at Natural Selection and the Salinas Valley's success.

"If you have small farms or smaller regional farmers you can isolate it. But when you have 70% of the produce coming from one part of the country, you have a problem, and it's a problem for everyone."

The spinach crisis is affecting not only the large companies but also smaller family-owned firms. Watsonville Produce processes and bags spinach and other produce at a modest facility in Moss Landing, on a gentle slope overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

The firm's owner and president, Dominic Muzzi, 64, started farming in 1964 and started packaging in 1993. Today, he works alongside his son, Dominic Jr., 42, who is vice president, and his daughter, Lisa, the accounting manager.

The elder Muzzi is respected among growers. The Muzzis have no ties to Natural Selection, also known as Earthbound Farm. Even so, the spinach crisis has transformed their lives, and in an interview at their offices, they spoke of the tension that has enveloped them since late last week. Both father and son had bloodshot eyes.

Lisa was the one who first heard of the spinach contamination on the news, and she immediately called her brother. Their reaction was that if they hadn't received a call from the FDA, their product may be OK.

Instead, customers began calling lots of them.

"They're asking, 'Are you part of this?' You tell them no, not at this point," Dominic Muzzi Jr. said.

But customers still canceled their orders. All spinach processing stopped. The Muzzis went to meetings with growers, trying to make sense of the FDA blanket warning about fresh spinach.

Dominic Muzzi Jr. spoke cautiously, emphasizing that health and safety were his first concerns. Still, "If we're not a part of it, we would wish they would be more specific about it," he said.

On Tuesday, as the investigation progressed, growers and processors grew even more hesitant to discuss their mounting business problems. One grower complained of the media, "It's like you're digging for anything."

In one field, a television news crew aimed its camera at a picturesque scene of workers moving through rows of green leaves in the midafternoon sun. The green leaves were not spinach, but romaine, a nearby field supervisor said. Romaine lettuce has not been implicated in the E. coli outbreak.

Situations like that have some farmers worrying that consumers may stay away from bagged lettuce as well.

"This will hurt people. There's no ifs, ands or buts," said George Bonacich, an apricot grower and first vice president of the farm bureau board in San Benito County, where Natural Selection is based.

The best news federal officials offered Tuesday was the hope that, with the recalls and news reports, people are no longer being exposed to the disease.

Although new cases continue to be identified, all of the illnesses reported so far occurred between Aug. 2 and Sept. 9, a window that hasn't changed in the last few days. Those who are going to fall ill usually do so within a week of exposure. It can then take another two weeks for a doctor to examine the patient and a lab to do tests.

"We may be looking at another three weeks before we really have final numbers," Acheson said. "But I hope exposure is done with."

Many farmers say that by the time they are given the all-clear, it will probably be too late, Michael Dobler, 44, of Moss Landing, is a third-generation farmer in business with his father, uncle and two cousins. Their Watsonville operation is 2,000 acres. They grow spinach, with 60 to 70 acres growing at one time.

Right now, Dobler is watching much of that spinach grow too mature to sell. "By the end of this week, there will be a lot of acres that will simply be too big to take to any market," he said Tuesday evening. "We're crossing the line right now. When you get to Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, I've lost a lot of acres."

Dobler, who earned an MBA at Northwestern University, said the current situation is the kind of thing that pushes smaller operations out of business.

"In this day and age," he said, "you have to be big in order to absorb these kinds of shocks."


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