By Claire Walla
Poor Popeye is not the only one suffering: as of 25 September, 175 cases and one death have been linked to an outbreak of Escherichia coli strain 0157:H7 – commonly referred to as E. coli – persuading millions of Americans in the same boat as that spinach-loving sailorman to boycott the green veggie.
"I think the whole thing is blown out of proportion; it’s just another government scare tactic," Santa Cruz local Donald Welty commented as he strolled past bins of the stigmatized plant last Sunday at the East Cliff Farmer’s Market. Though Welty did not purchase any spinach that day, he assured it was not because of the threat of E. coli. If spinach had been on his shopping list, Welty grinned, "sure, I’d buy it!"
Nevertheless, 25 states across the country have reported E. coli-related illnesses, and spinach sales are expected to drop an estimated $100 million in just one month’s time.
All cases of E. coli contamination are currently being traced back to California, to a region once known as the birthplace of famed American novelist John Steinbeck, now making headlines for intestinal bacteria: Salinas.
E. coli is expected to have developed in spinach that was grown and processed by Earthbound Farms, a large-scale, organic farm set on 26,000 acres broken up among different locations in five different countries (note: E. coli has only been traced back to farms in Salinas). Though E. coli outbreaks have afflicted the Salinas area at least eight times in the past ten years, the cause of the infected spinach is not yet known.
Earthbound Farms co-founder – and UC Santa Cruz alumna – Drew Goodman was unavailable for comment.
But precisely what caused the E. coli outbreak is not the main issue at hand, according to Tim Galarneau, recent UCSC alumna and part-time coordinator of the UCSC Food Systems Working Group (FSWG). The E. coli outbreak "is a great education on the danger of large-scale production," he argues. Earthbound Farms, a company that provides 70 percent of the nation’s bagged, organic salads, "can’t even identify where everything went wrong." The company has grown so big that it has lost direct accountability for its production, he says.
Galarneau does not worry about big spinach-producing companies such as Earthbound Farms: "they have insurance," he states, dismissively. It is the small-scale companies that Galarneau thinks will really feel the effects of this mini epidemic. "The smaller growers that depend on spinach [to stay in business] will be left in the dust."
Recently, UCSC has been doing its part for the local farming community. All ten dining halls on campus now offer locally grown certified organic produce. In addition to its own 25-acre field, UCSC gets fruits and veggies from six other farms located in the Monterey Bay.
This process of selection is "much more resilient" than buying pre-packaged, mass-produced goods, according to Galarneau. "The university has the chance to source seven different growers" before purchasing a product.
Most of these small-scale farmers also sell their crops directly to the community by way of Santa Cruz’s Farmer’s Markets.
Even in the midst of spinach’s plummet to the bottom of veggie popularity, Ronald Donkervoort, a local farmer from the Live Oak district, proudly displayed a crop of homegrown spinach at his stand last Sunday at the East Cliff Farmer’s Market.
"I always support small business’, it’s my basic philosophy," Donkervoort said from beneath a worn, straw hat. "Even if it costs more, it’s better quality and it’s good for the local economy."
Donkervoort’s farm, Windmill Farms, is run on a 4-acre plot of land that he still cultivates himself. "When farms grow to really big sizes, the farmers become CEOs, they’re not farmers anymore."
Donkervoort is not planning to up-scale anytime soon. "I stay small because I like the farming."