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Spinach grower won't face criminal charges

June 22, 2007|Mary Engel | Times Staff Writer

Federal prosecutors will not file criminal charges against the California grower or processing company linked to contaminated spinach that killed at least three people and sickened hundreds in a nationwide E. coli outbreak last fall.

In a brief statement released by his San Francisco office Thursday, U.S. Atty. Scott N. Schools said that "a thorough and wide-ranging investigation" had determined that criminal charges "are not warranted."

Last October, agents from the FBI searched two Central California processing plants for any evidence of criminal negligence. Agents later searched fields in Santa Clara, Monterey and San Benito counties.

A separate investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and California's Department of Health Services traced the tainted spinach to a cattle ranch in San Benito County, which leased a small field to Salinas-based Mission Organics to grow spinach.

Twenty-six samples of feces, soil and surface water at the ranch matched the genetic strain of bacteria in bags of spinach that had made people sick. The report, released in March, said that the most likely source of the pathogen was wild pigs or water contaminated by wild pigs or cattle.

A Natural Selection Foods packaging plant in San Juan Bautista was the only processor involved, the report said.

The companies involved still face civil lawsuits.

The outbreak last August and September caused 205 illnesses in 26 states and killed two elderly women and a toddler. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that about 4,000 people were sickened by the spinach, taking into account that relatively few cases typically are reported.

Other deaths were considered "highly suspicious" but not definitively linked to the outbreak.

Meanwhile, Gills Onions, an Oxnard distributor, has voluntarily recalled diced yellow onions packaged under the Trader Joe's brand with "Lot #2017-R" and a best-if-used-by date of 6/16/07 after the Washington state Department of Agriculture detected a potentially deadly bacterium in one retail bag. Although no illnesses were reported, the bacterium, Listeria monocytogenes, can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children and frail or elderly people.

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