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Spinach is slowly moving back on the shelves, but some retailers avoiding California

A survey of some spinach buyers and sellers, as well as a review of stories in the consumer press, reveals that spinach is getting back on the shelves, but some retailers are staying away from California, at least at this point.

Dan Verdelli of Verdelli Farms Inc. in Harrisburg, PA, said Oct. 4 that spinach sales are starting to come back, "but I'd say they are only at 30 percent of the volume before the problem."

Mr. Verdelli said that a number of retail buyers are coming back to the category, "but they don't want us to source from California. In fact, they want us to put not the country of origin but the state of origin on the package. One retailer wants Virginia spinach; another asked for only spinach from Pennsylvania."

Verdelli is accommodating the retailer requests either with a state-of-origin sticker or by printing on the bag, if the format allows that.

According to the company's executive vice president, Verdelli Farms is probably the largest supplier of savoy spinach on the East Coast. All the savoy product is typically sourced from farms in the East, while the baby spinach Verdelli sells typically comes from California.

"Our California growers tell us they are ready to start up again, but our retailers are not quite ready to buy California product yet," he said.

Mr. Verdelli expects it to be about six months before consumers return to their normal shopping patterns with regard to spinach. He said that the company did not experience an increase of sales in other salad items during the two weeks that spinach was off the shelves. "We are getting some positive calls from consumers who know that our spinach wasn't the problem and are willing to start purchasing it again. We are hopeful that sales will climb back to their previous level quickly."

Mr. Verdelli said that sales are already increasing. During the first week after the U.S. Food & Drug Administration narrowed its advisory to only three California counties (the week of Sept. 24), Verdelli Farms spinach sales were only about 10 percent of pre-outbreak levels. A threefold increase this second week is a good sign, though he said "re-orders today have been on the short side," indicating that the pipeline is filling up but the product is moving off the shelves slowly.

Bob DiPiazza of Sam's Clubs in Bentonville, AR, said that his stores, along with their parent company, Wal-Mart, have not started stocking spinach again yet. He said Oct. 4 that it would probably be mid-October before the product re-emerges on the shelf.

Sam's Club and Wal-Mart are coordinating their efforts to bring back the product to all their stores at the same time.

While spinach has been off the shelves, Mr. DiPiazza said that Sam's Club customers have been substituting with purchases of other lettuce items. Foodservice customers make up a good portion of Sam's Club sales, and they are not going to take salads off their menus, he said. Hence, they have to find a substitute.

He said that the large number of restaurant buyers may be skewing his numbers, but his stores have seen no negative spillover impact from spinach to other leafy or lettuce items.

Sam's Club fills its pipeline through an inventory-replenishment system, and he said that the numbers for all the other lettuce products are not down at all.

Once Sam's Club starts selling spinach again, this longtime retail produce executive expects it to take about two months for sales of the product to return to pre-outbreak levels. "Judging from experience with beef recalls because of E. coli, it takes about two months for sales to come back."

He said that experience with other product recalls, from all sections of the store, tend to follow this same pattern. "I was involved in Chicago [with Dominicks] when Jewell Foods had a problem with their milk and salmonella. Our sales went crazy, but within a couple of months, they were back to normal."

Mr. DiPiazza said that before the spinach situation, he was sourcing from California, and he expects to resume that relationship once Sam's starts stocking the product again.

Connie Gardner, senior director of community relations for Indiana-based Marsh Supermarkets, said that the chain is also going to wait before selling fresh spinach again.

"We have not put it back on the shelf yet," she said Oct. 4. "Next week we will start with fresh bunched spinach. In mid-October, we will begin selling organic spinach from Earthbound Farm. We will not offer 'Dole' packaged spinach until they switch growing regions and change to Yuma [AZ], which we don't think will happen until mid-November."

Jeff Jensen of Classic Salads in Salinas, CA, said that spinach sales have been slow but are coming back now that California can ship again. "Most of our business is with foodservice, and they are starting to buy spinach again."

He said that during the two-week hiatus from spinach, many restaurateurs switched to arugula. "Retail sales only account for about 10 percent of our business, and they have just started ordering again."

A New England-based retailer requesting anonymity told The Produce News Oct. 4 that the firm had just started sourcing spinach again but would not reveal where it was coming from. "I'd rather not say," he said, even when reminded that his quote was not for attribution.

A buyer for a Midwest retailer who said he was not allowed to talk to the press also said that his company had just started putting spinach back on the shelves but noted that it was too early to gauge customer reaction.

Newspaper articles indicated that Massachusetts-based Stop & Shop and Giant Foods (both owned by Ahold) are selling bagged spinach, but not product from California -- only from Colorado or Canada.