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A Revised Warning on Spinach

FDA officials say tainted produce that sickened 166 people nationwide came from facilities and farms in three California counties.

September 23, 2006|Amanda Covarrubias and David Pierson | Times Staff Writers

Federal officials Friday lifted their blanket warning against eating fresh spinach, narrowing it to spinach from three California counties linked to an E. coli outbreak that has spread to 25 states.

Food and Drug Administration officials changed their recommendation after determining that tainted spinach that has sickened 166 people nationwide and caused at least one death came from processing plants and farms in San Benito, Santa Clara and Monterey counties.

"At this stage of the investigation, we know spinach grown in the rest of the U.S. and in California is not implicated in the current outbreak, therefore the public can be confident that spinach grown in non-implicated areas can be consumed," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

He said in a news conference Friday that state and federal investigators were working to further narrow the area from which the contaminated spinach came.

California growers produce about three-quarters of the nation's spinach, and about 60% of it comes from the three-county region that has been implicated in the outbreak. Other spinach-producing counties are Ventura, Imperial and Riverside.

Outside the state, Arizona, Texas and New Jersey have sizable spinach farms, said Tim Chelling, spokesman for the Western Growers Assn.

He said the FDA's announcement was welcome news to the beleaguered spinach industry. He noted that winter crops would soon be harvested in Imperial County and Yuma, Ariz.

"We want to act responsibly and err on the side of caution, but a blanket warning is extreme," Chelling said.

Many grocery store customers, however, said Friday that they were going to wait awhile before buying spinach again.

Cristina Ward was loading her car with groceries from a Ralphs in Glendale. Not included in her bags was spinach -- not for another few weeks, she said.

"I'm going to wait at least two more weeks," said the 31-year-old Glendale resident. "I stopped buying as soon as I heard about the outbreak. I like spinach salads."

Randy Ray, not a fan of spinach to begin with, said the E. coli outbreak just gave him another reason not to like the leafy green.

"I'll have it once in a while, but I'll be much more cautious," the 34-year-old Los Angeles resident said. "I wouldn't buy it Monday."

Roger and Amelia Otway and their 4-year-old son went shopping for a spinach substitute to make salad. The couple said they didn't feel safe eating spinach so soon after the outbreak. "He always called me to remind me not to buy spinach," Amelia Otway said about her husband. "We're going to wait at least two full weeks."

Because it can take up to three weeks for a bacterial infection to be reported to federal authorities, Acheson said officials could expect to see reports of new cases of E. coli through the first week in October.

Mark Roh, acting director for the FDA's Pacific Region, said Friday that a team of 20 investigators had inspected 10 fields and three processing plants in the three counties since Sept. 14, when the outbreak was first reported.

He declined to say what they had found so far. He said they were looking at sanitation practices, housekeeping methods, the cleanliness of equipment, what raw materials were being used, evidence of animal activity or pests, and many other factors.

No specific source of contamination has been identified, but many of those who got sick had eaten bagged spinach produced by Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista. At least one bag processed by Natural Selection, from New Mexico, contained the strain of E. coli linked with the outbreak. That company and two others recalled 42 brands of fresh bagged spinach or mixed greens.

The FDA's announcement came as the spinach-related outbreak had widened to half the states in the country.

Of those infected, 88 people have been hospitalized, including a Wisconsin woman who died.

Health officials also were investigating whether the deaths of a Maryland woman in her 80s and a 2-year-old boy in Idaho were caused by the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria found in tainted spinach.

As officials grappled with the outbreak, the California Department of Food and Agriculture pulled whole and raw milk products produced by a Fresno County dairy from shelves after four Southern California children were sickened by E. coli.

The raw milk produced by Organic Pastures sent children in San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties to hospitals, where two were in intensive care, state officials said.

The strain of E. coli O157:H7 found in the dairy products was different from the strain found in fresh spinach, they said.

In the two deaths under investigation in Maryland and Idaho, both victims had reportedly eaten spinach before they became ill, but a conclusive link had not been made.

"We still think it's probably the spinach," said Russ Mason, a spokesman for the Idaho Department of Health.

Kyle Allgood, 2, of Chubbuck, Idaho, died Wednesday at a Salt Lake City hospital from hemolytic-uremic syndrome, a condition associated with E. coli that can lead to kidney failure.

The Maryland woman, who was described as in her 80s, died Sept. 13.

E. coli O157:H7 causes diarrhea, often bloody. Most healthy adults can recover completely within a week, but some people -- usually young children and the elderly -- can developed hemolytic-uremic syndrome.

States reporting cases were Maryland (3), Tennessee (1), Arizona (4), California (1), Colorado (1), Connecticut (3), Idaho (4), Illinois (1), Indiana (8), Kentucky (8), Maine (3), Michigan (4), Minnesota (2), Nebraska (8), Nevada (1), New Mexico (5), New York (11), Ohio (20), Oregon (5), Pennsylvania (8), Utah (17), Virginia (2), Washington (3), Wisconsin (42) and Wyoming (1).

amanda.covarrubias

@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com

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