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Lettuce Is Pulled Over E. Coli Fears

A Salinas grower recalls its green-leaf variety after potentially deadly bacteria are found in irrigation water. No illnesses are reported.

October 09, 2006|Erika Hayasaki and Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writers

A week after the Food and Drug Administration lifted its warning against eating spinach, a Salinas, Calif., produce company voluntarily recalled 8,500 cartons of lettuce Sunday after tests found E. coli contamination in the water used for irrigation.

There have been no reported illnesses from consumers of Foxy brand green-leaf lettuce, which was shipped last week by the Nunes Co., one of the nation's largest vegetable suppliers. It is not known yet if any of the lettuce was tainted with E. Coli.

The FDA and California Department of Health Services are investigating to determine the strand and source of contamination, and whether it stems from the same dangerous form of E. Coli found in spinach that was linked to three deaths and nearly 200 illnesses nationwide.

"This is a precautionary measure based upon the recent events in the produce industry and our concern for our customers," said Tom Nunes Jr., president of the company. "No other products except green-leaf lettuce are a part of this recall."

Nunes said his company had recovered about 8,200 cartons of lettuce, which were shipped to distributors Oct. 3-6. Each carton holds 24 heads. He said the remaining 200 to 300 cartons might have been distributed in California, Arizona, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, Idaho or Montana. Because the problem was caught early, company officials don't think much of the lettuce made it to grocery stores.

The company's recalled green-leaf lettuce has a V-shaped frame with curly, light green to deep green leaves. It is packaged in a cellophane sleeve with a red Foxy logo on it and the number 6SL0024.

The recall added to the anxiety in California's Central Coast farming community, which is still reeling from the largest E. Coli outbreak ever recorded in the Salinas Valley area.

On Sept. 14, federal officials asked consumers nationwide to avoid fresh spinach. The next day, Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, Calif., issued a voluntary recall of all its packaged products containing the fresh greens.

The FDA later narrowed the warning to spinach from three counties on the Central Coast. On Sept. 29, officials altered their warning again, limiting it to products that already had been recalled.

As of Oct. 6, 199 cases in 26 states have been linked through DNA testing to the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7, which causes an estimated 73,000 cases of infection and 61 deaths in the United States each year. Infection may cause diarrhea, bloody stools, kidney failure or death. Children and the elderly are most at risk.

It is expected to take at least two days for state and federal investigators to determine which strand of E. coli may have affected the Nunes crops.

Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, said the industry is "hypersensitive right now," and companies have increased independent tests of soil and water. He said each new report of E. coli was "not only harmful to the brand and image, but it's expensive. There is the risk that someone could get sick from it."

Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist who heads the Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis, said the potential impact of the recall could be more widespread than the spinach recall because lettuce is a bigger industry.

"This is bad news for the whole produce industry and the Salinas Valley," Sumner said. "News like this has to make it worse. It makes it hard to say that the problem is isolated. It indicates to consumers that there might be a more fundamental problem."

There had been 20 E. coli outbreaks from lettuce and spinach since 1995 involving the Salinas Valley. Eighteen were linked to lettuce and two to spinach.

In November 2005, the FDA issued a letter outlining prevention procedures to California lettuce growers in an attempt to reduce contamination cases.

"We've never had this before; this is the first time," said Nunes, whose company has been operating since 1976. The family-owned business has 20,000 acres in California and Arizona. "It's not pleasant, but it's something we feel we needed to be doing because of what has been taking place in this industry."

FDA spokeswoman Julie Zawisza said officials were looking into the recall to find out whether it was the same strain as the one found in spinach. Officials have yet to find the source of the E. coli contamination in spinach. Possible sources include contaminated water, manure from nearby cattle farms and poor hygiene.

"If this is a case of bacterial contamination, we would need to find out the scope and whether it affects all Nunes lettuce or is limited, for example, to only certain lots," Zawisza said. "As a standard course of action, we would expect the firm to identify the source of the contamination and take steps to correct [it and to] ensure that it doesn't happen again."

Karen Klonsky, an agricultural economist with the UC Davis cooperative extension, said tainted lettuce crops had the potential to cause greater harm to the public and agriculture than the recent contamination of spinach.

"Spinach is used by only 3% of households," she said. "Lettuce is something else. About 50% of households eat it."

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erika.hayasaki@latimes.com

dan.weikel@latimes.com

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