October 20, 2006
By Bobby Horecka
What's been a bust for California growers in the wake of spinach recalls for fear of E. coli could prove a boon for growers in the Lone Star State.
At least that's how Ed Ritchie views it as he readies his fields near Eagle Pass for the fall spinach crop. His family has been raising fresh market spinach for more than 80 years at Tiroties Farms, and despite market scares, this year will be no exception.
So by mid-October, Ritchie said he'll have 400 to 500 acres of spinach growing, with nearly all the crop headed to the East Coast and Canada for fresh market sales.
Ritchie grows savoy spinach, which he described as a more robust, curly-leafed variety than the popular baby leaf spinach grown in California. Prior to the E. coli outbreak, the baby leafed variety had grown so popular it was actually claiming Texas' market share by a steady 5 to 10 percent each year, he said.
Spinach, a cool-weather crop, has a very limited window in which it can be successfully grown in Texas, typically late November to early March. California's spinach acreage, by contrast, is in a cooler clime and can produce the crop year-round.
That year-round supply helped them corner the market in spinach production, with the Golden State supplying roughly 75 percent of all the spinach consumed nationally. When that year-round supply was yanked off grocer shelves in September in the wake of nearly 200 E. coli cases in 26 states, California growers reported income losses of $74 million.
Texas rates third in spinach production, behind California and Arizona. Because most large growers in the Lone Star State had no crops in the field, those September recalls did little to affect their pocketbooks directly.
In fact, with consumer confidence shaken in California spinach, Ritchie said Texans could stand to capitalize.
No such bacterial food scares have ever been recorded in Texas' spinach crop, Ritchie said. And growers will be extra careful this year to make sure that record isn't tainted.
"We're all committed to consumer safety," Ritchie said of his fellow Texas spinach growers. "And perhaps with everything that's gone on in the last few weeks in California, consumers might be more willing to try some alternative choices."
Production changes help carry the goal of safer foods even further. Instead of hand harvesting fields, as in years past, growers have switched to mechanical harvest methods.
"They use wide-bed harvesters and harvest only the leaf of the spinach plant," he said. "That means there's even less chance of contamination from human contact or from the soil than there was when they primarily used human labor for harvesting."
Adding to those safety precautions, Ritchie said growers also daily sanitize their equipment.
Consumers, likewise, should take precautions when using fresh produce of any sort. Always wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating, and make sure preparation surfaces are sanitary.
Cutting boards are especially suspect when it comes to food contamination, food safety officials say. Be sure any surface used for meat is thoroughly sanitized before it is used for other types of food preparation.
Federal health officials had narrowed their search for the E. coli source to about a dozen California farms as of early October.
But even with the source not yet identified, the Food and Drug Administration cleared fresh spinach sales around the country.