WASHINGTON - Supermarket operators last week were assessing the damage caused by this month's spinach scare, while federal investigators continued their work to pinpoint the source of contamination that made scores of people sick and caused at least one death.
Food retailers disposed of millions of dollars worth of spinach products in produce and deli departments in response to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's advisory warning consumers not to eat fresh spinach.
"We had just under $2 million worth of product we had to pull off the shelves," said Jim Sinegal, chief executive officer of Costco Wholesale, Issaquah, Wash. "It was an effort but it's the normal course of business. It's something that had to be done."
Wisconsin led the country in the number of illnesses linked to fresh spinach - more than 30 reported cases of sickness, including one death. Officials at one of the state's leading retailers, Milwaukee-based Roundy's Supermarkets, responded promptly to the FDA's advisory. Stores put
up signs informing shoppers of the recall, and offered rainchecks for items that had been on sale.
"This has happened so fast," said Vivian King, director of public affairs for Roundy's, which operates 143 stores in three states. "We didn't want to take any chances even though we didn't have all the answers yet. When you hear bagged spinach, a death and many, many people sick, we felt it was necessary to pull all the suspected products just in case. We haven't had time to sit down and count how many bags of spinach we had to pull. We haven't had a chance to fully assess the entire impact, with cases still popping up in different places."
The United Fresh Produce Association, a Washington-based trade group, was working with federal authorities to reopen the spinach market and assess the cost to the industry. Fresh spinach accounts for an estimated $200 million in sales, according to United.
Whether the spinach recall will have a damaging effect on sales of bagged salads, lettuce blends and other packaged produce remains to be seen, but one industry official said some negative impact seemed inevitable.
"I can't help but think they are to some degree" being impacted, said Amy Philpott, vice president of marketing and industry relations for United. "We've received a lot of questions about that. I don't know what the exact effect has been. At this point, all we can say is the damage [from the spinach scare] will be significant. We're trying to get a good handle on the full economic impact. It'll be pretty broad. It's not just producers. It's everybody along the supply chain as well as labor and agricultural input.
"This is a significant outbreak," she said. "It's multiple states, which makes it more significant. Of course there was a death involved, which is a tragedy. That makes it very serious."
Consumers were not avoiding packaged salads and lettuce blends in stores last week. At Costco's club stores, shoppers looking for salad items purchased bags of romaine lettuce and other alternatives to spinach, Sinegal said.
Likewise, officials at Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, and Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., said there did not appear to be any falloff in sales of bagged lettuce and salads.
"Only time will tell what lasting effect this spinach case will have, but I expect the category to remain a large contributor to the produce department," said Jack Armstrong, a produce buyer for Bashas', who noted packaged spinach usually is the second or third most popular type of bagged salad the stores sell.
"To date, this incident has not significantly affected sales of other packaged salads and lettuce blends," Giant Eagle spokesman Dan Donovan said.
Federal investigators were combing spinach fields in California in an effort to pinpoint the source of contamination. The "vast majority" of people who became sick had consumed raw spinach, said David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. More than 130 cases of illness in more than 20 states had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those cases, more than 60 people had been hospitalized, including 20 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome, a form of kidney failure.
Nearly 75% of the cases involved women, Acheson said. All of the illnesses were caused by the same strain of E. coli 0157:H7, a bacteria that causes an estimated 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths in the United States each year, according to the CDC.
Any number of conditions can lead to E. coli contamination in growing fields. Investigators were looking at irrigation systems, drainage, harvesting methods and animal activity that could carry the bacteria into the fields, Acheson said.
Natural Selection Foods, San Juan Bautista, Calif., recalled all of its spinach products with expiration dates from Aug. 17 to Oct. 1. Salinas, Calif.-based River Ranch voluntarily recalled packages of spring mix containing spinach. River Ranch obtained bulk spring mix containing spinach from Natural Selection. The recall involved River Ranch's products sold under the Fresh N' Easy Spring Mix and Hy-Vee Spring Mix labels. Natural Selection's brands include Pride of San Juan, Trader Joe's, Ready Pac and Earthbound Farm, the company's organic label. Natural Selection said no organic products, including the Earthbound Farm line of spinach, had been linked to the outbreak, though the FDA had not cleared organic spinach from the scope of the investigation.
Authorities also were not ruling out the possibility of recalls by other companies, Acheson said.
During a teleconference with the media, Acheson acknowledged the investigation was having a significant impact on the leafy greens industry. "Our primary concern now is protecting public health," he said. "It's critical we get our arms around this as fast as we can."
There were signs the government and the produce industry were getting closer to reopening the market. Investigators were working to learn more about the precise source of contamination so that fresh spinach from areas not implicated in the outbreak could go on the market, but it wasn't clear when that would happen, Acheson said.
Officials at United were staying in daily contact with the FDA and CDC, Philpott said.
"Safety comes first," she said. "We want the market back open as quickly as we can. We're working very hard to make that happen soon."