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Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Great Spinach Panic of 2006

The Spinach of death

Possible Source of Bad Spinach Is Named as Outbreak Widens

Published: September 16, 2006

SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif., Sept. 15 — As the number of cases of a virulent strain of E. coli linked to fresh prepackaged spinach grew to at least 94 in 20 states on Friday, federal health authorities identified an organic produce company here in California as a possible source of some of the tainted spinach.

By late Friday, 14 of the sickened people had grown gravely ill, the federal authorities said, and one had died, a 77-year-old woman in Wisconsin. Health officials said they were unable to determine if the outbreak was likely to spread further.

The company, Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, announced a voluntary nationwide recall of its Earthbound brands of prepackaged spinach and salad mixes as well as prepackaged spinach it processes for numerous other companies, including Dole. Prepackaged spinach has been processed, washed and sanitized and placed in airtight bags or plastic trays.

In a statement, the company said it had stopped shipping spinach products, had removed spinach from all of its salads and was cooperating with state and federal authorities by allowing them access to company facilities and products.

Speaking to reporters at the company’s operation here, a spokeswoman said there was no conclusive evidence that its spinach was contaminated.

“We’re obviously very, very upset,” said the spokeswoman, Samantha Cabaluna. “This is a tragedy for us.”

Dr. David Acheson of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration said at a news conference that the F.D.A. did not have definitive evidence that Natural Selection Foods was to blame for the outbreak of illness. But people who have been sickened apparently ate its spinach, Dr. Acheson said.

“I want to emphasize that the investigation is ongoing,” he said. “It is possible that the recall and information will extend beyond Natural Selection Foods and involve other brands and other companies at a later date.”

At the company’s headquarters here, set beside rows of vegetables, Ms. Cabaluna told reporters late Friday that company officials were distressed by the situation, and said that investigators had not reached conclusions about a possible tie to the outbreak.

Ms. Cabaluna said the company thought the recall was “the right thing to do.” She added, “We are doing this voluntarily because we just want to be safe.”

As grocers nationwide removed bags of fresh spinach from their shelves and restaurants took it off menus, health authorities said they were working to determine how the spinach might have come to carry the deadly bacteria. E. coli, which can live in cows’ intestines without making the animals sick, is more commonly considered a risk for people who eat undercooked hamburger.

Health and agriculture investigators say the bacteria may have emerged at any number of points in the production process, from the field to the supermarket, making it more difficult to pinpoint the source.

posted by Steve @ 3:33:00 AM

3:33:00 AM

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