Research into spinach keeps food safety focus

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By Pamela Riemenschneider

(Dec. 8, 5:17 p.m.) SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Spinach production is slowly gaining ground after its 130-million-pound drop from 2005-06, and opportunities abound for the industry.

At the International Spinach Conference Nov. 30–Dec. 2, growers and researchers from the U.S. and Europe gathered to discuss the latest news, trends and breakthroughs.

About 100 people attended the conference, which included a trip to Texas’ Winter Garden growing region, where about 3,200 acres are grown, a third of which goes to the fresh market.

Spinach production for the fresh market peaked at 756 million pounds in 2005, said Jose Pena, professor and extension economist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center, Uvalde. It dropped to 621 million pounds in 2006 after an E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach, but recovered some of that lost volume in 2007, with about 635 million pounds in production.

The demographics of consumers have changed as well, Pena said.

“We’ve lost the processed consumers, the older people that used to use and like canned spinach, and we have replaced them with younger, fresh-market people,” he said. “There’s all kinds of opportunity.”

Spinach also is price-competitive with many other leafy greens, Pena said.

Breakthroughs in food safety

Food safety in the spinach industry has
garnered a lot of attention. Several research projects are under way to help identify the most effective ways to minimize and eliminate contamination and foodborne illnesses related to spinach.

One such effort is going on in Texas in the form of water quality testing.

Juan Anciso, associate professor and extension horticulturalist at the Texas A&M Research Center, Weslaco, along with growers and cooperative extension agents in eight counties in the Winter Garden and Rio Grande Valley areas, has been collecting samples of irrigation water to determine levels of contamination.

The industry does not have a lot of guidance in this area and mostly relies on the Environmental Protection Agency’s criteria for water that is safe for swimming, Anciso said.

“This is a new thing in good agricultural practices,” he said.

Studies also are being conducted at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, on the use of lactic acid bacteria to control E. coli in spinach. The bacteria are used in the meat industry, said Sara Gragg, doctoral student conducting the research.

One of the most promising developments has come from electronic pasteurization — irradiation — as a kill step for spinach.

Researchers at the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M University, College Station, have achieved better than 99% reduction of E. coli through the process, said Alejandro Castillo, associate professor of animal science.

The Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation of spinach and lettuce in August, and it is a viable option for the industry, Castillo said.

“While the best practices are developed, treatments such as electronic pasteurization can prevent incidents from happening,” he said.



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