Firms in spinach limbo

CHAMPAIGN – Popeye might just have to switch to hamburgers if the national spinach recall lasts much longer.

Grocery shelves, salad bars and anywhere else bagged spinach is found have been spinach-less since a recent outbreak of E. coli infection that was linked to this green veggie and a massive spinach recall was put in effect last Thursday.

Produce retailers and distributors pulled bagged spinach and spinach products, and say they remain in the dark about what happens next.

Just hours after the Food and Drug Administration advisory about spinach was out, St. Louis-based Schnucks grocery chain pulled some 10,000 bags of spinach and spring mix salad containing spinach from the shelves of 102 stores and quarantined it, company spokesman Paul Simon said.

Some of it may be safe to return to the shelves if the FDA's investigation determines those brands to be safe, he added – but not if it sits in storage much longer.

"Bagged spinach usually has a shelf life of eight to 10 days," Simon said Monday. "We're at day four."

So far, consumers seem to be taking it in stride, he said. Schnucks carries only one recalled brand, Earthbound Farm, but accepted returns on any bagged spinach customers wanted to bring back to the stores.

"Everything I've heard is that customers know the severity of E. coli, and have been very cooperative with this," Simon said.

Schnucks hasn't put a dollar figure on its potential spinach losses, Simon said, but Urbana-based produce distributor John Rollins said his company, Central Illinois Produce, has a potential $10,000 loss.

Potential, because it remains to be seen which part of the food chain, from grower to retailer, is going to absorb the losses when the investigation ends, Rollins said.

East Central Illinois Produce, which distributes produce to hospitals, schools, restaurants and other businesses, issued a voluntary recall on its spinach products immediately following the FDA alert.

Spring mix, which is "very popular," will be back in circulation by the end of this week, Rollins said. Spring mix growers have begun packaging it without the spinach, "so come this Friday, all our customers will be able to buy spring mix," he added.

All totaled, Rollins said, his company is losing about a week's worth of spinach sales, which is about 800 cases of spring mix.

"I guess the good news from our standpoint is that spinach isn't really a huge item for us, so the effect has been somewhat minimal. Probably our biggest impact has been the spring mix," he added.

Rollins said he'll be interested to see whether his business, groceries and others will be credited for the spinach products they quarantined just to be on the safe side, if it turns out those products weren't tainted with bacteria.

The FDA reported Sunday that 109 cases of E. coli infection had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and there were 19 states affected.

The FDA continues to advise consumers to refrain from eating fresh spinach or products containing fresh spinach until further notice.

There have been two recalls in effect. One is by California-based River Ranch, which has recalled its spring mix that includes spinach from Natural Selections and is sold under the brand names Farmers Market, Hy Vee, and Fresh and Easy.

California-based Natural Selection Foods recalled all its spinach products in all brands it packs with "best if used by dates" of Aug. 17 and Oct. 1, the FDA said.

Those brands include Natural Selection Foods, Pride of San Juan, Earthbound Farm, Bellissima, Dole, Rave Spinach, Emeril, Sysco, O Organic, Fresh Point, River Ranch, Superior, Nature's Basket, Pro-Mark Compliments, Trader Joe's , Ready Pac, Jansal Valley, Cheney Brothers, Coastline, D'Arrigo Brothers, Green Harvest, Mann, Mills Family Farm, Premium Fresh, Snoboy, The Farmer's Market, Tanimujra & Antle, President's Choice, Cross Valley and Riverside Farms, the FDA said.

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