Tainted lettuce grown in Salinas
Investigation seeks source of E. coli in Dole bagged salads
By KIMBERLY CHASE
The Salinas Californian
Investigators are working to find out why E. coli bacteria ended up in Dole-brand salads in Minnesota and whether it can be traced back to production in the Salinas Valley.
Dole Fresh Vegetables on Saturday recalled three types of packaged salads, according to a company statement. The cited bags are the company's Classic Romaine and American Blend salads with a "use-by" date of Sept. 23, 2005, and a production code beginning with B250. Also included is Dole's Greener Selection, with a "use-by" date of Sept. 22 and the same production code.
Though the outbreak happened two weeks ago and is limited to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, federal health officials warned that more than 245,000 bags of the affected Dole products were distributed nationwide.
The president of Dole Fresh Vegetables in Salinas, Eric M. Schwartz, said the Minnesota State Department of Health has not shown the company a direct connection between the salads and the people who became sick.
Thus far, 12 illnesses have been reported, and three people were hospitalized. At least 11 of the people involved purchased the Dole products at the Rainbow Foods grocery chain in Minnesota.
"We're not sure how they're making the connection that it's us," Schwartz said. "If there's not a direct link, then they go through a process of elimination. We're still waiting to see."
E. coli 0157:H7 is the most dangerous form of the bacteria, which can cause symptoms including severe cramping, vomiting and bloody diarrhea. The worst cases can result in kidney failure.
The matter also is under investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the California state Departments of Health,
a Dole statement said, and the trail might lead back to the Salinas Valley, where the lettuce was grown.
Contamination of lettuce and spinach grown in the Salinas area also has been blamed in three other major food-illness outbreaks since 2002, although state investigators were unable to pinpoint the sources of bacteria that killed one elderly woman and sickened at least 114 other people.
Backtracking proves difficult
Barbara Cassens, San Francisco district director of the FDA, would not give specific information about the outbreak in Minnesota but said the agency will look into the problem.
"We're very concerned about the possible presence of E. coli in any food products, and we're going to conduct our investigation along with the California Department of Health Services," Cassens said Monday.
The FDA spent two days at Dole's plant in Soledad, Schwartz said. "Everything was up to snuff, and then they moved on," he said.
Even though the lettuce was grown here, Schwartz said, it could have been packaged either in Soledad or at a packing plant in Ohio before being shipped to Minnesota. Before the lettuce is packaged as salad by machines, it goes through a fresh water wash and two chlorinated washes, he said.
"If we had a wholesale problem I think it would have shown up in other places besides Minnesota," Schwartz said.
Establishing that link is not easy.
"We have not yet isolated the organism from the produce; we're still working on it. Often it's very difficult ... like looking for a needle in a haystack," said Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Health.
"All of the cases that we have, have the same exact genetic (type), and they all had this lettuce in common. So it's basically a big epidemiological arrow pointing to one of the lettuce products from Dole," he added.
Pre-cut salads a big market
Even without direct proof, this is the kind of news that food processors, retailers and consumers don't like to hear.
According to food research firm NPD FoodWorld, about 23 percent of all salads in the United States today are made from bagged lettuce. Pre-cut salads reached $4 billion in U.S. sales last year, according to the International Fresh-Cut Produce Association of Alexandria, Va.
Pre-cut salads "changed people's expectations about food, because what they did for the American consumer was make them realize, 'I can buy a convenience food and be healthy at the same time,'" said Mona Doyle, editor of The Shopper Report, a supermarket industry newsletter.
Doyle predicts sales of pre-cut salad won't be hurt severely. "If there wasn't a death, I don't think it's going to be that bad," she said.
But industry officials recognize that some consumers are wary of the cleanliness of pre-cut salads. Ten percent of consumers wash such salads after opening the bag, Doyle said, even though producers say it's not necessary.
Schwartz of Dole sees this incident as an opportunity to explain how the lettuce actually gets in those convenient little bags.
"The produce you get in a bag is still going to be cleaner than what you have at your house," he said. "It's all automated. I'm not aware of anyone in the industry that's hand packing."
More on this outbreak: Dole Lettuce E. coli Outbreak