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FBI and FDA Agents Search 2 Companies in E. Coli Outbreak

October 05, 2006|Michael Muskal and Mary Engel | Times Staff Writers

Agents from the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Criminal Investigations searched two Central California produce companies Wednesday in connection with the nationwide E. coli outbreak that killed a Wisconsin woman and sickened 191 others in 26 states.

The searches were the first sign that authorities were looking at potential criminal charges in last month's outbreak from tainted spinach.

"We are investigating allegations that certain spinach growers and distributors may not have taken all necessary or appropriate steps to ensure that their spinach was safe before it was placed into interstate commerce," U.S. Atty. Kevin V. Ryan said in a statement.

He said there was no indication that the spinach was deliberately contaminated.

The search "does indicate that it was a very significant outbreak, and they are looking at all their options," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"They're looking for the possibility of criminal negligence," she said.

The warrants were served at a Natural Selection Foods LLC plant in San Juan Bautista and at Growers Express in Salinas.

A separate federal and state investigation traced bags of spinach that tested positive for the strain of E. coli responsible for the outbreak -- 0157:H7 -- to Natural Selection and is continuing to search for the source of the deadly bacteria at the processing plant and at nine farms that supplied it with spinach.

"The documents requested ... included those that have been previously provided to both the FDA and the California Department of Health Services in the course of the investigation, as well as additional information that investigators believe will be helpful to their investigation," Charles Sweat, Natural Selection's chief operating officer, said in a statement Wednesday. "We ... welcome all efforts to trace this problem back to its source."

Growers Express, which grows and packs produce and operates a cooling facility, declined to comment.

Federal health officials on Friday lifted a warning against eating fresh spinach other than products that had already been recalled by Natural Selection.

Ryan said that Wednesday's searches did not reveal any evidence of a new threat to public health.

michael.muskal@latimes.com

mary.engel@latimes.com

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