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E. Coli Linked to Calif. Grower

The farming company recalls its packaged spinach after illness spreads to 20 states. Restaurants and stores clear their shelves.

September 16, 2006|Rong-Gong Lin II and Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writers

Spinach from a large California-based farming operation has been tentatively linked to a widening bacterial outbreak that so far has caused one death and sickened 93 people in 20 states, health officials said Friday.

One day after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended against eating any fresh, bagged spinach because of the E. coli outbreak, Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, Calif., issued a voluntary recall of all its packaged products containing the fresh greens. The company, which bills itself as the largest grower and shipper of organic produce in North America, also operates under the name Earthbound Farm.

"They decided to do this for the sake of public health," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA's food safety division, which along with the California Department of Health Services urged the recall. "The epidemiology is pointing to their products.

"The investigation is ongoing and it is possible that the recall

Natural Selection Foods packages spinach for more than 30 companies, including Dole Food Co., Pride of San Juan, Emeril, Sysco, River Ranch and Trader Joe's.

The products being recalled carry "Best if Used by" dates of Aug. 17 through Oct. 1.

"The health and safety of those who consume our products is our priority today and every day," Natural Selection officials said on their website Friday in announcing the recall. "We remain absolutely committed to providing a safe, nutritious product to all of our customers."

Natural Selection was the first company in the country to sell pre-washed bagged salads, according to the company's website. It now distributes 100 varieties of organic salads, vegetables, fruits, snacks and juices throughout the country, processing 30 million salad servings every week. It also produces nonorganic fruits and vegetables.

The E. coli O157:H7 strain suspected in this outbreak is particularly virulent, causing an exceptionally high rate of illness and complications.

In less than 24 hours, the number of states believed to be affected by the outbreak expanded from eight to 20, almost doubling the tally of those reported stricken. One California illness is believed to be associated with the outbreak: a Shasta County adult who was hospitalized and is recovering at home.

At least 14 people have developed serious conditions that can lead to kidney failure, officials said. More than 29 have been hospitalized.

"Numbers are going up pretty rapidly," said William E. Keene, senior epidemiologist with the Oregon public health division.

All 94 cases share the same genetic fingerprint, suggesting they come from a common source, officials said. Moreover, interviews conducted by epidemiologists -- disease detectives -- indicate that almost everyone who has become ill ate packaged spinach. The link is not definitive, however, and officials have not found a bag of spinach containing the E. coli strain.

Produce need be contaminated with only a small amount of E. coli for a person to fall ill. For unknown reasons, the infections have been associated only with spinach that has been prepackaged. That raises the possibility that the contamination occurred either in fields dedicated to such spinach or during processing.

As supermarkets -- including Ralphs, Vons and Trader Joe's -- began tossing out spinach packages, Acheson expanded the earlier FDA warning to say that consumers should not eat anything containing prepackaged fresh spinach, including salads.

Grocery chains said consumers who bought prepackaged spinach could return it for a full refund.

In an "abundance of caution," the National Restaurant Assn. urged eateries to temporarily remove all menu items containing any fresh spinach, including the unpackaged variety.

Restaurants hastened to adjust their menus. "Everything with spinach is off our menus in 110 restaurants nationwide," said Cheesecake Factory spokesman Howard Gordon. That included spinach salads, firecracker salmon rolls and, as a precautionary measure, even spinach dip made with frozen spinach, which does not fall under the FDA advisory.

"We take very seriously those types of recommendations," Gordon said.

The potential California connection is a huge blow to the state's fresh spinach growers, who say that, in general, produce safety has vastly improved in the last decade. Americans buy about $250 million of packaged spinach annually, most of it grown in California.

Production of the bagged greens has virtually stopped, said Bob Martin, general manager of Rio Farms, a produce operation in King City, about 150 miles south of San Francisco. "We've shut down everything," he said of his operation. "Trucks in transit, they're told to take it and dump it. They're leaving spinach in the field; they can't harvest it."

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