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Outbreak News

Officials investigate 2 more deaths possibly linked to bad spinach

September 22, 2006

CBC.CA News U.S.

Health officials are investigating two more deaths potentially related to the spinach E. coli outbreak that has killed one woman and left at least 158 others sick since last month in various states.

Tissue samples from a Maryland woman, who was in her 80s, and some of the spinach she ate before she became ill were sent to state labs for testing on Friday, said Rod MacRae, a Washington County Health Department spokesman. The woman, whose name has not been released, died on Sept. 13.

A two-year-old Idaho toddler also died from a kidney disease associated with E. coli infection.

Authorities are uncertain if Kyle Algood's death was related to the contaminated spinach outbreak.

Family members said Algood had bloody diarrhea and that he had eaten packaged spinach before falling ill, said Dr. Christine Hahn, an epidemiologist at the Idaho Department of Health. Test results are expected next week, Hahn said.

Investigators have traced the outbreak to a California company's fresh spinach but are unsure how the bacteria came into contact with the food.

Inspectors this week began visiting the farmers' fields in California's Salinas Valley to examine the fertilizer and water sources.

U.S. officials confirmed that the E. coli strain O157:H7 was present in the contaminated spinach. E. coli stands for Escherichia coli, an umbrella term for a species of bacteria that lives in animal intestines.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is continuing to warn consumers not to eat fresh spinach imported from the U.S. Health Canada has not received any reports of illness associated with the outbreak.

Increase in food-borne illnesses

Rick Holley, a professor of food safety at the University of Manitoba, said that over the last 30 years, there has been a constant increase in foodborne illnesses.

This rise is in part related to the rising numbers of people consuming more fresh produce on the advice of their doctors. He also noted that the distribution chain, from farm to shelf, is much longer, leaving more room for contamination.

Holley said Canadians should be aware that there is a certain amount of risk associated with each and every type of food.

"I think that there should be some concern and I think it's also important to recognize that all of the food we eat is not sterile," he told CBC.

California farmers want spinach warning lifted Meanwhile, California produce growers have drafted new food-safety measures in an attempt to salvage what's left of the spinach season.

U.S. federal officials have asked the industry to adopt the measures before they lift a week-old consumer warning on fresh spinach.

"We as an industry have to declare war on all foodborne illnesses," said Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association, an industry group representing about 3,000 fruit and vegetable farmers in California and other states.

Nassif said the new measures would focus on improved water and soil testing, and better sanitation standards for field workers and packaging plants.

Bryan Silbermann, president of the Produce Marketing Association, estimated that the consumer warning could cost farmers and vegetable packaging companies as much as $100 million US a month.

Trade groups aim to present the new food-safety measures to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration within a week.

Bill Marler, a lawyer representing more than 40 people sickened by E. coli, questioned whether growers and processors were taking adequate care to guarantee the safety of their products.

"The industry is really masterful at saying, 'We don't know exactly how it happened, so how do we fix it?'" Marler said. "But they've got to get this situation dealt with so the E. coli doesn't get on the produce in the first place."

More on this outbreak: Dole and Natural Selections Spinach E. coli Outbreak

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