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Number of E. Coli Cases Rises to 114

Some growers decry what they call the government's too-strict advisory on spinach consumption, citing financial losses.

September 19, 2006|Rong-Gong Lin II, Deborah Schoch and Mary Engel | Times Staff Writers

SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. — California farmers voiced frustration Monday at the government's continuing advisory that consumers avoid all fresh spinach. But federal authorities defended their action, as the tally of those sickened in a nationwide E. coli outbreak rose to 114.

Though expressing concern for the health of consumers, growers said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's decision was too broad and could have a devastating financial effect even on farms not implicated in the outbreak.

"I don't think the problem is the commodity as a whole. It's not spinach. It's something specific to a ranch, a shed, an operation," said Dominic Muzzi Jr., vice president of Watsonville Produce, whose spinach cleaning and bagging business has been halted.

"The whole spinach industry is on hold until the FDA can be more specific," said Muzzi's sister Lisa, the accounting manager.

The FDA broadened its warning over the weekend to include all fresh spinach, although officials have primarily focused on the packaged greens that came from a large San Juan Bautista-based operation, Natural Selection Foods.

Food safety experts and some industry groups said federal officials have acted appropriately.

"Everyone is erring on the side of caution," said Tim Chelling, spokesman for the Irvine-based Western Growers Assn. "Food safety is a public trust. Members of our industry take it extremely seriously."

Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at UC Davis, said the government action was justified by the potentially lethal nature of the bacteria, E. coli O157:H7.

"This is a dreadful, dreadful pathogen," Bruhn said. "This can lead to lifelong incapacity, permanent kidney damage or even death. It is not something that is trivial."

Twenty-one states have now reported E. coli cases. At least 60 people have been hospitalized, and 16 have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a condition that can lead to kidney failure.

At least one death has occurred -- a 77-year-old woman from Wisconsin. Investigators were determining whether another death in Ohio was connected to the national outbreak.

Three in four of those sickened have been women, which authorities say is because women are more likely to eat fresh greens. Many more people may have been sickened in the outbreak but weren't ill enough to seek treatment or be tested.

Bruhn said that the E. coli strain involved is particularly dangerous because it adheres to intestinal walls and exudes a toxic material that can dissolve them, causing bloody diarrhea and extreme cramping.

"I've heard some women say the pain is more intense than labor pain," she said.

In rare cases, the very young and old can suffer hemolytic uremic syndrome, in which platelets clump together in the kidneys, leading to organ failure, severe anemia and bleeding through the skin.

The FDA recommends against eating even cooked fresh spinach, since there is a possibility of bacteria from the spinach being transferred to skin or kitchen surfaces during preparation. The recommendation does not extend to frozen and canned spinach.

State and federal officials said they will begin testing this week in California fields that may have produced the tainted spinach, based on bar codes on the packaging. Up to now, no specific source of contamination has been identified, although most of those who got sick had eaten bagged spinach produced by Natural Selection Foods.

That company and one other have recalled 34 brands of fresh bagged spinach or mixed greens.

We "recognize our need to get our arms around this, and recognize which spinach was not involved in the outbreak to get spinach on the shelves back for customers," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA's food safety division.

Acheson said the industry has been cooperating fully with the investigation. He said that all suspect spinach appears to have come from California fields, but officials have not ruled out produce that was grown outside of the state.

Kevin Reilly of the California Department of Health Services said the investigation has been difficult. He said people can fall ill as late as a week after ingesting tainted food, and lab results can cause additional delays in diagnosis. By the time investigators become involved, he said, the produce has often been consumed or thrown out, making definitive identification of the source difficult.

Reilly said that four state investigators were working with spinach processors to try to trace the outbreak to its source using records, codes and invoices. On Tuesday, additional state and FDA inspectors will fan out to farms to interview workers and observe day-to-day practices, searching for possible sources of contamination such as nearby livestock or recent flooding.

Since 1995, there have been 20 cases nationally of E. coli outbreaks linked to lettuce or spinach, and nine of them, including this one, have been traced to the Salinas Valley. Officials began an investigation several weeks ago to evaluate the growing and processing practices of lettuce in the region; that was expanded to include spinach.

*

ron.lin@latimes.com

deborah.schoch@latimes.com

mary.engel@latimes.com

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