Salinas Valley vegetable growers and packers are uncertain about the long term impact of the E. coli outbreak on their industry.

Obviously, the coastal spinach market has been declared DOA; fortunately, though, it was in the tail end of the season when the outbreak occurred.

Growers in the desert are reported to be taking a “wait-and-see” attitude, although sources say it does not appear planting schedules have changed yet to exclude spinach, which should go in the ground in Imperial and Yuma Valleys by mid-October.

Sources report some growers and packers in the desert are considering planting spinach early to fill a supply gap caused by the Salinas alert. The FDA has lifted the ban on fresh spinach grown outside of the California coastal valleys.

“Because of the timing of this, the growing season is actually transitioning down to the border area right now,” says Tim Chelling, vice president of communications for Western Growers Association at Irvine. “People on the border have a decision to make about planting spinach as they start up the winter crop later in October.”

Jeff Nigh, independent PCA at Yuma, says growers who are planning to plant spinach are actually looking at bumping up their timetables to fill gaps created by the loss of late coastal production.

“We usually start spinach Oct. 15, but because of the problems in the counties up north, my understanding is we will be starting to plant ASAP,” he says. “The million dollar question is, How much will buyers want? Some growers only will plant stuff that’s contracted — they don’t want to go to the open market with it. But I think these guys are going to start earlier than usual and with less acreage.”

In the meantime, experts from government, industry, and academia continue to look for the source of the recent outbreak.

Trevor Suslow, a pathologist specializing in microbial food safety at UC Davis, says the outbreak stresses the importance of growers and PCAs understanding and following Good Agricultural Practices for handling irrigation water, manure, vertebrate pests, and other potential sources of E. coli bacteria.

“At the field level, the top candidates are always going to be fecal matter or manure directly or indirectly contaminating the crop, either being introduced through water or incorporated into the soil,” Suslow says. “There is also the possibility that wildlife may be carrying the pathogen into the field. And we can’t eliminate the potential for a human to also be a carrier or source of contamination.”

He says the licensed PCA, as the person most often in fields on a daily basis, must take a proactive approach in helping to be the front line for growers in identifying and managing against microbial contamination that can lead to an illness outbreak.

“Everyone has a role to play, all the way from field men to consumers,” Suslow says. “Those who are in the field the most on the production side, and who have the most intimate knowledge about what happens on a field-to-field, ranch-to-ranch, and day-in-day-out basis, are the best individuals to help us identify problem areas and the challenges to overcoming those problems.”

That extends also to tractor drivers, irrigation crews, and pest control advisors and operators.

“Moving forward and in the future, it is going to be essential to not just look at the programs growers have for microbial food safety, but to insure that everyone in their organization really understands and is aware of the risks and makes safety a part of their everyday routine,” Suslow says.

“Over the last five or six years, I’ve never understood why PCAs have been reluctant to get involved and participate in food safety programs the same way they’ve been instrumental in expanding integrated pest management programs beyond the Cooperative Extension,” he says. “It’s really an opportunity for them, because they’re out in the field so much. They could be of great value to the industry as a whole in helping the industry get its arms around food safety issues.”

Nigh agrees that PCAs can help to be the eyes and ears in the field, even if they are somewhat removed from responsibility for managing food safety programs.

“Some places, for instance, have a lot of coyote issues, so if I see scat or feeding in the field, I will mention that to the grower,” he says.

Yuma area PCA Bill Fox says the recent outbreak will likely result in even more stringent recordkeeping and other accountability programs for growers and PCAs.

“They’re going to have to do the best they can — there’s not going to be any cutting corners; it’s by the book.”

Suslow says that while outbreaks of foodborne illness are not restricted to the Salinas Valley during the late summer and early fall, public health regulators have compiled a “number” of incidences connected to the region during that particular time of year.

“It would be a mistake to think there is only a single source or cause of contamination,” Suslow says. “But there does seem to be a combination of factors that make it more likely you’ve reached a level where an outbreak is a greater risk. Eventually, I would hope there would be a systematic analysis of the whole pipeline of production, harvest management, and distribution to provide the clues to help narrow it down.”

WGA’s Tim Chelling says the industry realizes food safety is a “sacred trust” that takes precedence over any other considerations, and is prepared to take whatever steps necessary to prevent or minimize the chance of further outbreaks.

In April, the industry and FDA worked together to develop new food safety guidelines for lettuce and leafy vegetables; those guidelines have now been expanded to include spinach.

“This is an indication of the industry’s desire to take advantage of any kind of development in food safety on the science and technology front,” Chelling says.

“Any time they have the opportunity to raise the bar on food safety, this industry jumps at it. That doesn’t mean it can’t improve. The silver lining of this incident is that this will be another opportunity to improve food safety even more — an opportunity to learn and raise the bar again.”