Since 1990, Don Patterson has grown and sold nearly 50 million pounds of conventional fresh market spinach from his small farm in Cranbury, N.J. No one has ever reported getting sick from eating it, and he's never been cited by the FDA. But when Patterson harvests his 200-acre crop next week, chances are that no one will want it, and it could cost him sales of $500,000. "It's like losing six months of income," says Patterson.
Hundreds of spinach farmers across the country are set to take big losses this fall because of the E. coli outbreak that's sickened 166 people and counting in 25 states, killing at least one. In tracing the outbreak to its origin, officials have narrowed their search to spinach farms in Salinas Valley, Calif., making this the 20th time in the past decade that E. coli has been found in produce from the region that meets 75 percent of the country's increasing demand for fresh spinach.
Consumption has risen ten-fold since 1970, fueling what's become a $325 million-a-year industry. The outbreak has already led to $50 million in losses on the production end, and analysts say that could top $100 million a month until things return to normal. Late last week the FDA lifted its nationwide ban on fresh spinach, though after more than a week of shelf-clearing hysteria, and illnesses still being reported, spinach sales will likely remain slow.
Outside Phoenix, farmer Arnott Duncan is getting ready to plant his organic spinach crop. He usually puts down about 700 acres, but this year he's not sure what to do. "I'm going to have to gamble on how much to plant, but that's farming," says Duncan, who likens the industry to a roller coaster with ups and downs. "This could be the beginning of a 500-foot drop. We're hoping it stops at 50 feet." Problem is, no one knows where the bottom is yet.