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Texas spinach growers say product is safe

Just weeks away from planting the 2006-2007 crop, Texas spinach producers are trying to combat negative publicity caused by the recent E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak traced back to baby spinach grown in California. While the Food and Drug Administration says the public can consume spinach grown outside the implicated areas, Texas producers want to reassure consumers that their product is safe.

“We are concerned about the current situation and committed to consumer safety,” says Ed Ritchie, chairman of the Winter Garden Spinach Producers Board. “There are three major grower/shippers left in the area, and all are family owned and operated. We are very concerned about food safety, because if we weren’t, and one of our customers became sick, we wouldn’t be in business very long.”

Nearly 100 percent of Texas’ fresh-market spinach is grown in the Winter Garden region of Southwest Texas. Ritchie, of Eagle Pass, estimates that between 1,200 acres and 1,500 acres in the nine-county area produce spinach. Texas fresh-market spinach is savoy, or crinkle-leafed, while the spinach in question in the outbreak is smooth leaf, which is typically used for baby spinach products.

“Texas has not broken into the baby leaf market because we don’t have year-round production,” Ritchie says. “In Texas production, most spinach is clipped at a 3- to 5-inch leaf size.”

He adds that Texas producers don’t bag locally, saying 97 percent of the product goes out of state to re-packers.

Larry Stein, a Texas Cooperative Extension horticulturist based in Uvalde, echoes Ritchie’s assertions that Texas spinach growers produce a top-quality product.

“We’ve been using good management practices since we’ve been growing spinach in Texas,” Stein says. “We’ve been shipping spinach out of this region for longer than 80 years, and we’ve never had a problem. Until five years ago, it was all harvested by hand, and now we’ve even improved our practices by using mechanical harvesters.”

The harvesters are sanitized daily, he says, as are the spinach processing lines.

Even with the current E. coli scare, Stein does not think there will be a noticeable effect on the market for Texas spinach.

“We are a little worried about the demand being there when we’re ready to harvest — from about Thanksgiving of this year to March of 2007 — but we think it will be,” he says.

Ritchie says he and the other growers are ready to start production of the 2006-2007 crop.

“We’re still two to three weeks away, but we will plant. We’ll just be even more cautious,” he says.

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