Growers say safety plan is required to lift spinach warning |

Growers say safety plan is required to lift spinach warning

Terence Chea

SALINAS (AP) – California produce growers and processors worked to draw up new food-safety measures on Thursday that federal officials have set as a prerequisite for lifting a week-old consumer warning on fresh spinach.

Trade groups said they hoped to deliver the guidelines to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration within a week but were unsure how long it would take win the agency’s approval.

“We have people who hope this will be resolved soon so they can salvage something of this season,” said Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, said during a news conference. “Once we go to Washington and iron out those guidelines, we’ll be much closer to a date.”

The industry’s response to the national E. coli outbreak traced to bagged spinach from Central California would build on existing efforts to protect produce from contamination rather than entail a complete overhaul, according to Nassif.

He said it was too early to provide details, but that the measures would likely focus on improved water and soil testing and beefed-up sanitation standards for field workers and packaging plants.

“We as an industry have to declare war on all food-borne illnesses. We have to do everything to assure the American public that our food is safe to consume,” he said.

Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, estimated that the FDA’s Sept. 14 warning for consumers to stop eating fresh, raw spinach was costing farmers and vegetable packaging companies $50 million to $100 million a day.

The E. Coli scare was also affecting sales of other types of produce, although Silbermann said figures for those vegetables were not yet available.

Silbermann said trade groups were trying to get the state to compensate spinach growers who saw the market for their crops disappear overnight and to help promote crops from the Salinas Valley, which has been the center of the FDA probe to find the source of the outbreak.

“The thing that is more fragile than this product is consumer confidence, the trust that consumers have in our ability as farmers, processors, retailers and restaurant operators,” Silbermann said while holding up a bag of baby spring mix. “That’s what we’ve got to focus on.”

Once the FDA approves the new food-safety measures, consumers are likely to find lower prices as the industry works to stimulate an appetite for spinach, he said.

As of Thursday, the E. Coli outbreak that started last month had sickened 157 people, killing one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Federal and state officials have traced the outbreak to contaminated spinach from at least one of nine farms and several processing plants in California’s Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties. The region produces more than half of the nation’s spinach crop.

The FDA said that a bag of tainted Dole baby spinach found in the refrigerator of a New Mexico patient was helping the agency zero in on how the suspect spinach had become contaminated.

The spinach was packaged by Natural Selection Foods LLL, a San Juan Bautista company that packages salad greens sold under dozens of brands.

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