For the week ended Dec. 23, packaged spinach sales were down 37% from the same period a year earlier to $976,699, while bulk spinach sales, a smaller market, were off 22%, says the latest data from market researcher The Perishables Group.
Sales of packaged salads that contain spinach are hurting, too, off 28% year-over-year to $1.4 million. Sales of packaged salads without spinach were down 7.9% to $31.2 million for the week ended Dec. 23. The Perishables Group tracks retail sales at 16,000 supermarkets but not Wal-Mart, Costco or natural food stores.
"It's still devastating," says Jerry Rava of King City, Calif.Rava is one of the nation's biggest spinach growers. He's cut production about 25% from last year.
Demand for spinach fell to almost nothing in September after the FDA temporarily warned consumers not to eat fresh spinach. On Sept. 29, the FDA said all spinach in the E. coli outbreak had been traced to one distributor.
Sales are rebounding slowly for several reasons. The outbreak, which sickened 199 and resulted in three deaths, was well-reported, and some consumers are still leery, says Bruce Axtman, CEO of The Perishables Group. McDonald's, citing an "abundance of caution," has yet to return spinach to its spring mix salad, spokesman Bill Whitman says. The outbreak was also followed by two E. coli outbreaks at Taco Bell and Taco John's restaurants. The FDA has said lettuce was the most likely culprit.
"That created a very sensitive market," says Tanios Viviani, president of Fresh Express, the leading packaged salad maker. He says Fresh Express' unit sales of spinach, even this month, are 10% to 15% below last year's levels.
Many retailers started reintroducing spinach in early October. Costco waited until this month. It now requires suppliers to random test spinach at the processing plant, including for E. coli 0157:H7 and salmonella, another bacteria that can cause serious infections in some people. Within weeks, Costco expects similar testing for other bagged and ready-to-eat products, such as lettuce salads and baby carrots. "It's another part of the food-safety process," says Craig Wilson, Costco vice president of food safety and quality.
Shortly after the spinach outbreak, Natural Selection Foods, which processed the implicated spinach, started random testing of raw product for E. coli and salmonella. This month, it started testing finished product, too.
Fresh Express and others are evaluating testing. Because random tests can miss contaminants, Viviani says grower prevention is the best safety measure. The United Fresh Produce Association has asked for federal oversight of the produce industry. Now, the FDA regulates processing plants but only gives growers guidelines.