YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Spinach Warning Expanded

All fresh forms of the vegetable should be avoided as a precaution against E. coli, the FDA says. California growers could lose $100 million.

September 17, 2006|Rong-Gong Lin II, Deborah Schoch and Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writers

SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. — As the number of people sickened in a nationwide E. coli outbreak pushed past 100, federal officials Saturday expanded an earlier warning against eating bagged spinach to include all fresh spinach and any product containing the raw greens.

"What we need to do is get a clear message to consumers," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food safety branch. "The best thing ... is to simplify it."

Although the illnesses appear to be linked to packaged fresh spinach, health officials are concerned that consumers might not know if spinach in their sandwiches and salads came from a bag. Acheson said the recommendation will hold "as long as it needs to to protect public health."

The precaution, which does not apply to frozen greens, added to the woes of the nation's fresh spinach industry, which is centered in California. Even before the expanded warning was issued, UC Davis agricultural economist Daniel Sumner estimated that the crisis could cost the state's industry between $50 million and $100 million.

Growers were jolted by the FDA's new warning. "That pretty much eliminates the spinach crop for the time being," said Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau. Still, he said, "Better safe than sorry."

Investigators continued their probe Saturday of a sprawling farming business in San Juan Bautista, Calif., that late last week was tentatively linked to some of the 102 cases reported in 19 states since Aug. 2. (Officials lowered the number of states affected by one Saturday, citing an error in including Tennessee in Friday's count.) The virulent strain O157:H7 has killed one person, a 77-year-old woman in Wisconsin, and has left at least 16 with a serious condition that can cause kidney failure.

State health officials were at the headquarters of Natural Selection Foods, also known as Earthbound Farm, combing records and inspecting its 26,000-acre operation. The privately held firm, which describes itself as the largest producer of organic produce in North America, on Friday recalled all of its prepackaged fresh spinach, sold under 31 brand names including Dole Food Co., Pride of San Juan, Emeril and Trader Joe's.

The company has previously said that its organic produce alone was available in nearly three-quarters of the nation's supermarkets. Chains have hastened to pull the produce from shelves, including, as of late Saturday, fresh unpackaged spinach.

Disease investigators suspect Natural Selection in the outbreak because many of those sickened apparently ate its packaged spinach. However, no E. coli has been found in bags of the company's spinach, and health officials have said it is possible that other growers or processors could be implicated.

The cause of the contamination by E. coli, which is present in cow manure, is a mystery, though theories include flooding, droppings from birds who have ingested the manure or workers with the bacteria on their hands or clothes. Although E. coli can be killed if produce is boiled, health officials erred on the safe side by recommending avoiding fresh spinach altogether. The virulent strain implicated in the current outbreak causes symptoms including bloody diarrhea and severe cramping.

Natural Selection officials, while going forward with the recall , defended their operations.

"Quality and food safety have been the centerpiece of our business, and we pride ourselves on the high standards we have set and the great care we take in the handling of all the product that comes through our facilities," said Charles Sweat, chief operating officer of Natural Selection Foods.

On its website, the company says its farming techniques allow it to avoid the use of millions of pounds of synthetic fertilizer and toxic pesticides.

The company has been very involved in the leadership of California Certified Organic Farmers, the state's leading organic farm group, and has organized food safety workshops at the group's annual conventions, said Trevor Suslow, a research specialist at UC Davis, who has worked closely with the company since the mid-1990s on food safety issues and has visited the operation to sample crops.

"They're pioneers," he said. "They're very progressive and innovative in all aspects of their business, and food safety is one of them."

Others familiar with the company echoed the praise.

"They are very well-respected. They are a fine company and fine people. They've helped turn organic produce into big business," said the farm bureau's Perkins.

Natural Selection began as a backyard venture in 1984 by Andrew and Myra Goodman, University of California graduates from Manhattan, according to the company website. The couple started out with 2 1/2 acres of raspberries, greens and herbs.

Los Angeles Times Articles