These upticks in leafy green consumption are refreshing news for U.S. spinach growers who have looked for a resurgence for about six years.

An outbreak of the pathogenic 0157:H7 strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli) in California-grown spinach in 2006 hammered the domestic spinach industry. The tainted spinach was linked to five deaths and more than 270 illnesses.

The likely implicated source in the California E. coli-spinach case was an Angus cattle ranch leased for spinach production.

Consumers immediately lost confidence in the safety of spinach. Spinach sales sank like the iceberg-damaged Titanic. Estimated losses to the spinach production industry total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many E. coli strains are actually harmless and, in fact, are an important part of a healthy human intestinal tract.

Some strains are pathogenic, which when transmitted through contaminated water or food, or through contacts with animals or people, can cause severe diarrhea in humans.

California and Arizona growers produce about 95 percent of the U.S. vegetable crop. The main growing hub is along California’s Central Coast (including the Salinas Valley). Most winter vegetables are grown in the low desert regions of Southern California and Arizona.

The CLGRP organization dates back to an iceberg lettuce-only organization with a different moniker, founded in 1973 and formed under a State of California marketing order. The current program operates under the authority of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Spinach and spring mix were added to the CLGRP focus after the California E. coli-spinach event, along with the new program title.

Zischke’s affiliation with the CLGRP dates back more than 30 years. She conducted program research on lettuce downy mildew while a graduate student at UC Davis. She later served as a board member representing her previous employer Dole Fresh Vegetables.

Zischke has served as the board CEO for the last seven years.

The CLGRP is funded through mandatory assessments at the shipper level at the rate of $.00625 per carton.

The CLGRP’s top priority is leafy green crop research on plant breeding and plant pathology, pest management, food safety, and water quality. The research is conducted by scientists with the University of California, the USDA-ARS in Salinas, independent researchers, and other universities.

Over the last decade, the grower-funded program has spent about $850,000 annually on research. The largest funded area is plant breeding. “Multiple disease resistance is the top priority,” Zischke said.

Current breeding projects include developing plant resistance to fusarium wilt and verticillium wilt, downy mildew, and extending the shelf life of leafy greens destined for fresh market sales.