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Outbreak News

U.S. opens criminal inquiry on health measures taken by spinach growers

October 5, 2006

New York Times

Gardiner Harris and Libby Sander

Federal investigators have opened a criminal investigation into accusations that some California spinach growers and distributors failed to take adequate measures to ensure that their spinach was safe before selling it.

Yesterday, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Office of Criminal Investigations in the Food and Drug Administration carried out search warrants at Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista and Growers Express of Salinas.

Natural Selection, a large distributor of fresh produce, had previously recalled its packages of fresh spinach. Its chief operating officer, Charles Sweat, said in a statement that all tests at the Natural Selection plant showed no contamination.

"We continue to believe that the source of the contamination was in the fields from which we buy our spinach," Mr. Sweat said.

A person who answered the phone at Growers Express said the company would not comment.

The criminal investigation is surprising in a scare that sickened 193 people in 26 states and Canada, resulting in the death of a Wisconsin woman and 98 being people hospitalized, the food and drug agency said.

All the victims had a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria, O157:H7.

With the focus of the investigation narrowing to spinach grown in the Salinas Valley, the agency told consumers last week that they could again eat fresh spinach.

Eleven bags of fresh spinach have tested positive for E. coli O157:H7, the agency reported yesterday. The United States attorney for the Northern District of California, Kevin V. Ryan, said investigators had no evidence that the contamination was deliberate or that it continued.

"We are investigating allegations that certain spinach growers and distributors may not have taken all necessary or appropriate steps to ensure that their spinach was safe before it was placed into interstate commerce," Mr. Ryan said.

Investigators have also visited Primus Labs of Santa Maria, Calif., which performs routine testing for E. coli among growers, Juan Muniz, Primus operations manager, said.

Mr. Muniz refused to discuss the specifics of the inquiry but said one challenge is the lack of definitive rules on what is an unacceptable E. coli level.

"I can eat something where my immune system is not affected, but my son or my father -- one or two colonies could affect them," Mr. Muniz said.

Growers usually ask Primus to test for general E. coli levels, Mr. Muniz said. If the results are a problem, growers may ask for follow-up tests that look specifically at O157:H7, Mr. Muniz said. But there is no definitive guideline for the level of general E. coli that would initiate the second test, he added.

Farm practices are governed by a voluntary code of good practices that tells growers to "maximize their efforts to minimize contamination," Mr. Muniz said.

"What does that mean?" he added. "It's complicated."

On Tuesday, a top California food safety official announced that eight fecal samples from cattle pastures near the affected spinach fields had tested positive for O157:H7.

"This is not really an unexpected finding," the official, Kevin Reilly of the Health Services Department, said. "We do know that E. coli O157:H7 can be found in healthy cattle, and that it is something that if we look, we are able to find it. The real thing here is to see if the strain type matches up with the outbreak strain."

Five companies have voluntarily recalled their spinach products since the outbreak was reported nearly three weeks ago. Natural Selection was first, recalling on Sept. 15 all products containing spinach. The company processes and packages spinach for more than 20 brands, including Dole, Nature's Basket, Trader Joe's, Ready Pac and Riverside Farms.

Another company in Salinas, River Ranch, followed two days later, having obtained some of its spinach from Natural Selection. In the next week, companies in Portland, Ore.; Seattle; and West Caldwell, N.J., recalled spinach products.

Some grocery chains began re-stocking fresh spinach last week, taking pains to show that the spinach was grown in places like Colorado and Canada. In the last 11 years, 20 E. coli outbreaks have been linked to "leafy products" grown in the region, including two related to spinach, Dr. Reilly said.

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

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