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Mounting regulations create challenges for spinach producers

Ed and Paige Ritchie go to great lengths to ensure a safe food supply on their Texas spinach farm. But coupled with labor and weather issues, the Ritchies are also faced with mounting food safety regulations.

Shelley E. Huguley, Editor

May 13, 2024

4 Min Read
packing spinach
The spinach is packed into RPCs- reusable plastic containers. To avoid splinters in the product, no wood, other than pallets, is allowed in the processing plant. Shelley E. Huguley

Food recalls and public health alerts make news headlines, but mounting food safety regulations create challenges for spinach producers. 

Ed and Paige Ritchie, Zavala County, Texas, go to great lengths to secure a safe food supply for consumers. 

Armed with a coding system, the family documents production practices down to the acre. 

“If there is a food safety recall, we have to be able to trace back quickly, like within two hours,” said Paige, the farm’s Food Safety Quality Assurance manager. She and her father, Ed, grow spinach and other leafy greens in the fields they call Tiro Tres Farms. 


The increased attention to food safety is important to the family, but it comes at a cost. 

Red tape 

Tiro Tres Farms grows baby leaf, teen leaf and Savoy spinach in Zavala County, Texas. They are one of three spinach grower/packers in the state. 

Historically, the Ritchies primarily had to comply with only USDA food safety regulations, but as consumer demand changed, each customer has also established unique guidelines.  

“A lot of these requirements get pushed down from the grocery store to the processing companies like Taylor Farms or Dole, and then to us,” Paige said, adding that Tiro Tres grows and packs the fresh spinach, while other facilities wash and package it. 

Related:Tiro Tres Farms celebrates leafy green harvest

“Even the fast-food industry,” Ed added. Companies like McDonalds have their own audit scheme. 

Tiro Tres Farms conducts multiple audits per year. “We pull a lot of pre-harvest samples and water samples,” Paige said. They also conduct environmental testing to keep up with the required regulations.


For example, each 5-acre lot has to be tested pre-harvest for E. Coli, salmonella and STEC (shiga toxin-producing escherichia coli). “If it’s not clear, they want us to destroy that lot with a buffer,” Paige said.  

When that happens, even if it’s retested and the result is negative, regulations still deem it unharvestable for the fresh spinach market. 

When a test is clear, the Ritchies have a limited time within which they can harvest.  

“Most customers will only allow seven to 10 days from the test result to harvest that zone or lot. And if you're unable to harvest for some reason, then you have to pull another sample,” Paige said. 

Testing is expensive.  

“Some customers want per-acre testing,” she added. 

The samples are overnighted to a third-party California lab. “It takes a day to get there and a day to return. The timing of that can make it difficult.” 

Regulation prompts return home 

The Ritchie family has been producing spinach for a century. Paige, who initially returned to the family farm temporarily following her 2014 graduation from Texas A&M University, now manages the farm’s food safety compliance full-time.  

Related:Popeye's pick: Father/daughter grow supercharged greens

“Paige touches everything that requires documentation,” Ed said. 


“For the past couple of years, food safety’s been a big learning curve, keeping up with the changing regulations because they’re adding something new every year,” Paige said. “It’s a little more difficult on leafy greens than other crops. Spinach, lettuce and romaine are always in the news for recalls of E. coli, salmonella and listeria. So, that’s difficult.” 

Father and daughter admit keeping pace with evolving ordinances is challenging. “When I used to do it, we didn’t have to deal with all this,” Ed said. “Now you worry, did I forget to do something or miss the documentation? It’s stressful.” 

Keeping the consumer in mind 

Each production decision must be weighed, scrutinizing whether it will leave behind debris or possibly damage the final product. 

  • Crop residue matters. The Ritchies rotate their leafy green fields with grain sorghum and wheat. But they must be careful that the residue, that aids soil health, doesn’t litter their final product. “Anything [sticks and straw] is taboo,” Ed Ritchie said. “We follow our vegetables with grain sorghum and then wheat, which is easier to decompose.” This allows time for sorghum roots and stalks to decay. 

  • Packaging with plastic. The Ritchies transitioned from packing the spinach in wooden bushel baskets to plastic containers. “The consumer didn’t like finding a splinter in the spinach, so now no wood is allowed in the facility other than a pallet,” Paige said. 

  • Livestock adjacent. Crop placement to adjacent fields must also be considered. “The grocery store chains don’t want spinach within a certain mile radius of cattle,” Paige said. “I had an auditor tell me the other day, ‘This doesn’t pass for you. You must be a mile away from the cattle.’ It’s getting difficult to find land we can use because of that rule.”

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About the Author(s)

Shelley E. Huguley

Editor, Southwest Farm Press

Shelley Huguley has been involved in agriculture for the last 25 years. She began her career in agricultural communications at the Texas Forest Service West Texas Nursery in Lubbock, where she developed and produced the Windbreak Quarterly, a newspaper about windbreak trees and their benefit to wildlife, production agriculture and livestock operations. While with the Forest Service she also served as an information officer and team leader on fires during the 1998 fire season and later produced the Firebrands newsletter that was distributed quarterly throughout Texas to Volunteer Fire Departments. Her most personal involvement in agriculture also came in 1998, when she married the love of her life and cotton farmer Preston Huguley of Olton, Texas. As a farmwife, she knows first-hand the ups and downs of farming, the endless decisions made each season based on “if” it rains, “if” the drought continues, “if” the market holds. She is the bookkeeper for their family farming operation and cherishes moments on the farm such as taking harvest meals to the field or starting a sprinkler in the summer with the whole family lending a hand. Shelley has also freelanced for agricultural companies such as Olton CO-OP Gin, producing the newsletter Cotton Connections while also designing marketing materials to promote the gin. She has published articles in agricultural publications such as Southwest Farm Press while also volunteering her marketing and writing skills to non-profit organizations such as Refuge Services, an equine-assisted therapy group in Lubbock. She and her husband reside in Olton with their three children Breely, Brennon and HalleeKate.

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