Spinach growers tally losses

Some farmers suggest that the FDA's warning stemming from an E. coli outbreak is too broad.

As federal authorities continue to track the sources of E. coli bacteria on spinach that have led to 146 cases of illness in 23 states, economists say California growers will be hit hard – even those beyond the Salinas Valley producers implicated in initial findings.

Losses could total $50 million to $100 million, which includes destroying spinach already on the market, plowing under unharvested fields, and impacts on farmworkers, truckers, restaurants, and grocery stores. Growers from Colorado to Texas to Florida could also be affected, but California – which supplies 75 percent of the US market – will be hit the hardest.

At the same time, several factors are mitigating such losses. Spinach is a fast-growing crop – about 28 days from plant to harvest on average – so many farmers can plant something besides spinach. By contrast, many other crops, such as some fruit, take at least nine months to grow. Thus, the recovery from one lost spinach crop could take less time.

"If this had been a similar problem tied to cherries, many farmers would see the loss of income for an entire year," says Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis. "As hard as this is, they have more options than they might have with other crops."

On Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration said that investigators were focusing on nine California farms spread over three counties. At the same time, FDA continued its advisory that consumers avoid all fresh spinach. One death has been attributed to the contamination.

While the investigations continue, some California farmers are balking at the FDA's advisory on fresh spinach. They say the ban is too broadly stated and could cause unnecessary economic loss.

"They are suggesting that the problem with E. coli is in the spinach itself and not the conditions under which it was grown, the location, or the processing," says Linda Halley, a spinach farmer from Wisconsin who moved to California six months ago. Now general manager of a 12.5-acre organic produce farm in Santa Barbara, Ms. Halley says the FDA advisory is "ridiculous" and "doesn't make sense."

The reasoning of Halley and other farmers is twofold. First, organic farms have much stricter regulations from field to market than do conventional farms. Those include a ban on the use of animal manure, which is a source of E. coli bacteria, either directly or from runoff into water that is then sprayed on crops. Second, many smaller farms sell their produce directly to consumers – instead of to large packaging firms that consolidate spinach from dozens of farms. Therefore, they say their product should not be covered by the same blanket restriction advisory as nonorganic farmers.

"We are using the same methods of planting and harvesting that we did two weeks ago before this happened, and our spinach is just as safe as it was then," says Halley.

Because her operation is small, Halley says economic impact will be negligible, but others are already sustaining huge losses.

Jack Vessey, an Imperial County produce farmer, says his entire business is in limbo until the FDA pins down the details of what happened. Besides throwing off his season-to-season schedule of planting crops, the outbreak has cost him at least $250,000 already, he calculates.

If the problem persists, Mr. Vessey says he has the option of planting something else. "But the crops I replace it with will not be as lucrative," he says.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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