Another packager recalled three brands of its fresh spinach products Sunday as a widening national E. coli outbreak was linked to seven more illnesses and left spinach farmers and vendors with wasted crops and empty shelves.
The number of confirmed E. coli cases associated with spinach rose to 109 people in 19 states; 55 victims have been hospitalized and a 77-year-old woman died in Wisconsin on Sept. 7.
"This is unquestionably a significant outbreak," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA's food safety division. "It is certainly one of the larger ones in the United States; there's no question about that."
Salinas-based River Ranch Fresh Foods, one of the nation's top five produce processors, was recalling three of its spring mix salad brands Sunday that include spinach: Farmers Market, Hy Vee, and Fresh and Easy, Acheson said in a conference call.
Robert Jenkins, president and chief executive of River Ranch, said Sunday evening he was confident that the source of the contamination will be found. "We are not aware of any illnesses that have been linked to the consumption of spring mix," he said. "We're obviously very supportive of the work the FDA is doing."
The River Ranch products were distributed to customers in Iowa, Texas and New Mexico.
"I'm confident we're going to figure this one out. There's just too much talent, too many people, not to figure this out and regain the confidence of consumers," Jenkins said.
The company buys in bulk from Natural Selection Foods, one of the nation's largest producers of organic produce. Since last week, Natural Selection has been the primary focus of the investigation into the source of the outbreak, because many of those sickened apparently ate its packaged spinach. However, E. coli has not been found in the company's bags of spinach, and health officials have said others could be implicated. Natural Selection issued its own recall of 31 brand names.
The recalls come as the FDA has warned consumers not to eat any fresh spinach or products containing it until further notice. Erring on the side of caution, officials did not recommend cooking the fresh greens. Canned and frozen spinach are not included in the warning.
Acheson said the number of illnesses could climb this week as labs continue testing for the E. coli strain known as O157:H7. The particularly virulent strain can cause bloody diarrhea and cramps and can trigger a rare complication leading to kidney failure.
The bacteria can be found in the manure of cattle and some other grazing animals, which can harmlessly carry the strain in their intestines. It can be passed to humans when they ingest the bacteria in contaminated produce.
Over the weekend, federal and state investigators continued to pore over records at Natural Selection headquarters in San Juan Bautista, Calif., hoping to trace the outbreak to its source.
California's food emergency response team today will head to farms that supplied the suspect spinach, reviewing their growing and harvesting practices, Acheson said.
Across the Salinas Valley, the heart of spinach country, farmers are increasingly anxious. California produces nearly three-quarters of the nation's spinach.
Dale Huss, vice president of production at Ocean Mist, which does not grow for Natural Selection, was among the few spinach growers willing to speak openly about his plight.
At an Ocean Mist field in Castroville on Sunday, Huss pulled up a fistful of spinach leaves and took a bite.
"Nothing wrong with it," he said, chewing slowly. "Gorgeous, really. It's good."
Huss expects that in the next few days, he will dig up this 20-acre expanse, an $80,000 investment.
"We can't wait. We'll essentially have to put a disk in this," Huss said, referring to a machine that will chop the spinach and turn it back into the soil. "We can't hold on."
Huss may wait a few days, hoping against hope that the scare will pass, but time is against him. Within a week, the spinach will get long and dog-eared, and then start to yellow.
"We're running up against Mother Nature," Huss said.
He doubts he could sell his crop for freezing, since that market probably is inundated, he said.
Huss recalled how the phone began ringing before 6 a.m. Friday as clients began canceling spinach orders less than 24 hours after the initial warning. By 9 a.m., he sent about 100 workers home.
"No sense in putting spinach in a box if no one's going to buy."
At the consumer end of the food chain, spinach was hard to find.
"We just pulled all our spinach because customers aren't going to buy it now anyway," said Cathy Dominguez, a seller at the Sunday farmers market in Hollywood. "Everybody's pretty scared and nervous. So it's easier for us just not to bring it."
On Saturday, she lost about $420 in sales at the Pasadena farmers market.