Spinach Growers Plot Strategy To Battle E. Coli Scare

Dole Food Co. plans to launch a marketing effort to restore consumer confidence in fresh spinach, but not until the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has resolved the issue.

"We have our work cut out for us," says Marty Ordman, vp of marketing and communications at Dole. "But the issue needs to be resolved first, with an action plan in place to assure spinach is safe. Once the product is back on the market, we will start putting out communications."

Dole's spinach offensive likely will focus on point-of-purchase materials at the retail level, radio spots, newspaper ads and traditional PR efforts, Ordman says.

Like Dole, two produce-industry trade groups concur that consumer outreach advertising will be essential, but neither is close to delivering a spinach-recovery campaign.

"We've discussed internally the need to do this," says Jerry Welcome, evp of the United Fresh Produce Association. "Many of our member companies have expressed an interest in collectively trying to pool resources to get a good media campaign, which is preferable to every company going out (with ads) on their own. But we have no agency on record, and we have no money for it."



"At this point, our focus is on working with the industry and FDA to locate the source of the outbreak," says Lorna Christie, svp, Produce Marketing Association, based in Washington, D.C. "Once the outbreak is resolved, then we will work with consumers."

To date, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in Atlanta has reported 146 cases of E. coli infection from spinach, including one death. The FDA has isolated the source to Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, Calif., and it believes the affected area to include farms in the Salinas Valley. The agency is working to get spinach grown in other states back on store shelves.

In addition to Dole and Natural Selection Foods, affected brands include Pride of San Juan, Earthbound Farm, Bellissima, 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, Tanimura & Antle, President's Choice, Cross Valley, and Riverside Farms. The recalled products include spinach and any salad with spinach in a blend. Products that do not contain spinach are not part of this recall, nor are frozen or canned spinach products.

"How these companies respond will say a lot about how quickly consumers return to spinach," says Harry Balzer, vp of NPD Group, Chicago. "I'm sure this scare will cause at least momentary consumption change, but once people hear food is safe, they usually go back to what they were doing."

Some industry insiders believe that spinach marketers are wise to take a cautious approach with consumers. "No one is prepared to stick their toe in the water until they make sure the spinach shark is gone. They just don't know what to do until we have more answers," says Marcia Mogelonsky, senior analyst with Mintel International, a research company in Chicago. "We may never have a firm answer ... but whatever it is, consumers want some kind of response and not just a pat on the head."

According to Mintel, the sales of bagged salads at supermarkets reached $2.6 billion in 2005--up 13 percent in just two years.

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