O.C. Strawberry Farmers Fear Panic by Public
Strawberry farmers were scrambling Wednesday to assure retailers and consumers that fruit found in thousands of school lunch desserts tainted by the hepatitis A virus was harvested in Mexico, not in California fields.
As state officials traced the source of the virus, strawberry farmers reacted quickly to protect their rapidly approaching peak season.
“We’re trying to make sure that people don’t panic,” said Cindy Jewel, director of operations for the California Strawberry Commission in Watsonville. “We don’t need a lot of nervous, scared people out there wondering if it’s safe to eat the berries.”
The issue is important to the state’s $550-million industry because it supplies 80% of the nation’s fresh strawberries. In Orange County, where the berries are the single-largest food crop, farmers reported sales last year of $32.5 million.
Golden State growers hope to distance themselves from the Mexican-grown fruit that, according to state health officials, is the suspected cause of the virus found in lunches served to Los Angeles and Michigan schoolchildren.
State regulators said Wednesday that the tainted strawberries were picked last year in Mexico and processed and frozen by a San Diego company.
“We want retailers and consumers to know that those were frozen strawberries from Mexico and we are shipping fresh strawberries from California,” Jewel said.
While strawberry farmers typically must battle Mother Nature, the hepatitis A scare marks the second consecutive year that growers have had to fend off a foreign threat to their crops.
Last year, farmers were shaken when some leery retailers refused to stock freshly picked California berries after the fruit was mistakenly linked to cyclospora, microscopic parasites that caused hundreds of cases of intestinal flu.
That outbreak subsequently was blamed on Guatemalan raspberries--but not before California growers lost an estimated $20 million in sales.
Orange County growers now are anxiously awaiting consumers’ response to the latest health concern. If shoppers stop buying California strawberries for fear of contracting hepatitis A, it could “make it tough for us,” said A.G. Kawamura, an Irvine grower.
Even though California berries were cleared, growers recognized that they needed to adopt a uniform quality assurance program that would better address consumer demand for quality produce.
Prior to this year’s season, growers adopted a statewide quality control program that governs the growing, harvesting, packing and shipping of strawberries, said Clark Biggs, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation in Sacramento.
The program, which supersedes individual farmers’ programs, includes clear guidelines that are supposed to protect the industry’s reputation for fresh and healthy berries, Biggs said.
“This sort of thing is very much on the front burner,” Biggs said. “They learned a lot from cyclospora . . . and they’ve been working hard to make sure that they’re not painted as a problem when they’re not.”
Strawberry commission staffers struggled Wednesday to keep grocery store buyers abreast of late-breaking news by faxing reports to store buyers. But they were thrown for a loss when strong winds blew down power lines. Workers hurriedly connected an electrical generator to keep facsimile machines humming.
Individual farmers also were dealing with worried buyers. Oxnard strawberry grower Scott Deardorff fielded calls from wholesale buyers who were either putting off purchases or negotiating for price breaks:
“The buyers are saying, ‘We’re not going to bet the farm on it,’ ” he said.
California-grown berries typically are a hot item at grocery stores nationwide this time of year. They signal the start of spring for consumers in cold-weather states, and retailers view strawberries as a profitable item that generates significant business.
But when media reports began to surface on Monday about the possible link between strawberries and hepatitis A, the strawberry industry started practicing damage control.
“Of course, we’re concerned that people will miss some of the facts here,” said Lucky Westwood, business manager for Rio Mesa Farms in Oxnard. “We’re in a fresh season and these are foreign berries.”
Strawberry commission staffers sent buyers copies of a California Department of Health Services report that exonerated fresh, California-grown strawberries. And they told buyers that the company responsible for shipping the suspect berries had agreed to recall them.
“We took a hit with cyclospora,” Jewel said. “There were some retail operations that took strawberries off their shelves. And our job now is to make sure retailers have all the information at hand needed to make decisions.”
Word of the health scare came as growers, who have long dealt with rising land prices, are bracing for stronger union organizing efforts. The AFL-CIO has joined the United Farm Workers in a bid to unionize workers, and some retailers, including the Ralphs supermarket chain, have sided with workers.
Growers also are continuing their age-old effort to grow the perfect strawberry. This year, a number of farmers began planting a new variety of berry--called the Camarosa--that promises a longer growing season, and bigger, firmer fruit.
And, farmers who depend upon a perfect blend of weather and rainfall to grow their temperamental crop, are keeping a keen eye on Mother Nature. Some Southern California farmers, who have an earlier growing season, report that higher-than-average temperatures have hurt crop yields.
“This last part of the season is going to make or break it,” said Mike Mobley, president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau. “It’s a real crucial time. [Growers] need a good end of the season to get out of the red ink.”
Times staff writer Martha Groves in Los Angeles and Times correspondent Richard Warchol in Ventura contributed to this report.
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Strawberries are produced in six major California regions, including Orange County. Estimated 1997 producing acreage and 1996 wholesale value, in millions, by region:
Acres Value Watsonville area 10,700 $240.0 Ventura County 5,620 $100.0 Santa Maria 4,000 $77.0 Orange County 2,100 $32.5 San Diego County 330 $10.0 San Joaquin Valley 750 $9.4 Total 23,500 $468.9
Sources: California Strawberry Commission, individual county agricultural commissions
Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times