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Spinach Linked to E. Coli Outbreak Was Not Organic, Health Officials Say

September 29, 2006|Deborah Schoch and Mary Engel | Times Staff Writers

The nine bags of baby spinach now linked by DNA testing to the national E. coli outbreak all held conventional rather than organic produce and all were sold under the Dole label, state health officials said Thursday.

The nine bags were packaged by Natural Selection Foods at the same facility in San Juan Bautista on Aug. 15, officials said.

"All of those positive bags to date have been conventional product," said Kevin Reilly, deputy director for prevention services at the state Department of Health Services. He added, however, that investigators have not ruled out the possibility that organic spinach is involved.

Nor have investigators concluded that Natural Selection's two processing facilities are clean, Reilly said. The firm said Thursday that all tests inside those facilities have been negative for E. coli contamination.

The outbreak has drawn national attention to organic farming practices in the Salinas Valley, in part because Natural Selection is widely known for its Earthbound label of organic products. But although the bags were sold as conventional spinach, Reilly said he could not say if the nine farms now being probed as potential E. coli sources all used conventional rather than organic practices.

The farms are in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties. Federal officials are still warning consumers not to eat fresh spinach from the three-county area.

State officials declined to identify the nine farms during a telephone news briefing Thursday, saying that the investigation is continuing. Potential sources could include water, fertilization, domestic and wild animals with access to the fields and poor worker hygiene, they said.

Natural Selection said Thursday that it will work with growers to oversee testing water, soil and other factors. It will also stiffen sanitation protocols for farm equipment, packaging supplies and transportation vehicles.

Company spokeswoman Samantha Cabaluna emphasized a third step: the testing of all batches of salad greens before they enter the facility.

She compared the process to that used in beef processing.

"It is unprecedented in our industry," Cabaluna said. Samples will be taken and cultured for 12 to 18 hours, which will delay processing for nearly a day of produce that typically has a 17-day shelf life, she said. "It's shorter shelf life and high improved food safety," she said.

Natural Selection representatives also said Thursday that for individuals with cases tied to produce it processed, the firm is offering to reimburse all out-of -pocket medical expenses.

They said they want to hear from every individual affected by confirmed cases of E. coli contamination originating from spinach the firm packed.

"It is the right thing for us to do," said Charles Sweat, chief operating officer.

Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler, who says he represents 86 victims in 25 states, called the payment of out-of-pocket expenses "a good first step."

Marler -- who has made a career representing victims of food-borne illnesses, beginning with the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak -- said he has spoken with attorneys for Natural Selection and Dole.

"It's a good thing when a corporation does that early rather than waiting forever," he said. "I encouraged them to do it for everyone, not just my clients, and obviously that's what they've done. And I commend them for doing it."

Cabaluna said Thursday that Natural Selection has decided not to complete the purchase of the former Pride of San Juan processing plant near its main facility in San Juan Bautista.

That plant is where Dole spinach is processed, but the decision to pull back from the purchase is for economic reasons, she said.

"We just don't need that capacity," she said. Natural Selection sales were off about 40% last week, she added.

A spokeswoman for Dole Foods, based in Westlake Village, said that it has a partnership with Natural Selection to provide spinach to be processed at the San Juan Bautista facilities.

Neither Natural Selection nor Dole grows spinach. Natural Selection deals with the growers who provide the spinach sold under the Dole label.

The tally of infected persons rose to 187 people in 26 states, including 134 women and 18 children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday. The strain in question, E. coli 0157:H7, has been isolated from the nine bags marked as baby spinach supplied by patients in seven states.

deborah.schoch@latimes.com

mary.engel@latimes.com

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