SAN FRANCISCO – Relieved farmers say they are heartened by the U.S. government's announcement that it is safe to eat most spinach, but they feel uneasy about their industry's future, knowing it may take time to win back public confidence.
During the two-week warning about E. coli bacteria in fresh spinach, growers said they re-examined the safety of their operations, anguished over the suffering of the 187 people sickened and one who died, and weathered significant losses as they watched crops go to waste.
"Everybody's just trying to regroup," said Teresa Thorne, with industry group Alliance for Food and Farming.
It is too early to tell how hard the industry was hit, but agriculture experts said unprecedented economic damage was likely.
In California, where three-quarters of America's domestically grown spinach is harvested, farmers could endure up to$74 million in losses, according to researchers working with Western Growers, which represents produce farmers in California and Arizona.
Last year's spinach crop in California was valued at $258.3 million, and each acre lost amounts to a roughly $3,500 hit for the farmer.
The government gave a partial endorsement to the industry on Friday, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announcing that most spinach is now "as safe as it was before this event."
But the warning remains in place for spinach recalled by Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Bautista, which covered 34 brands in packages with "Best if Used By" dates between Aug. 17 and Oct. 1.
Growers on California's Central Coast have another four or five weeks to harvest before shutting down for the winter, when spinach production moves to the southern valleys and Arizona.
Because they stagger plantings to allow for an uninterrupted supply, many growers still have young greens maturing.
When California Farm Bureau officials visited the Salinas Valley on Friday to meet with farmers, they found fields of overgrown spinach, too big for the processors who had ordered them under contract, farm bureau spokesman Dave Kranz said.
"Farmers are just waiting to see if they'll have orders," Kranz said.
Growers are trying to salvage what they can of their crops, but many say a loss of public confidence is the biggest threat to the industry. Before the E. coli outbreak, health-conscious Americans had driven up demand for spinach in salads and other healthy meals.
California farmers have more than doubled the amount of acres dedicated to spinach to keep up with consumption, from 15,000 acres in 2001 to 31,000 in 2005, with much of the growth being driven by demand for pre-washed, packaged spinach.
Some farmers worry that consumers will now look askance at the convenient bagged spinach.
Still, farmers say they are "relieved that the market is open, and they're determined to win consumer confidence back," Kranz said. "They're really trying to address the public health aspect, because that's what's going to make a difference in the long run."
Spinach growers and processors are relieved to cast aside the suspicion that had fallen over the entire industry, but no one is under the impression it is back to business as usual, said Tim Chelling with Western Growers.
The search for the source of the contamination continues, focused now on Natural Selection and nine farms that supplied it, and farmers say they are ready to do whatever experts recommend improve the safety of their fields.
"No one considers this a shut case," Chelling said. "No one is going to sit back and relax at this point."