Tainted Spinach Search Zeroes in On One Batch

2nd tainted bag in Utah helps pinpoint a specific time, date and processing plant, California health official says

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By Steven Reinberg
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Sept. 26, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- A second tainted bag of spinach, found in Utah over the weekend, has helped health officials pinpoint E. coli contamination in one specific batch of fresh spinach in a California processing plant.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that California health officials said the Utah bag of Dole baby spinach and another of the same brand found in New Mexico last week were both processed during the same shift on Aug. 15 at Natural Selection Foods' San Juan Batista plant in the Salinas Valley.

"We are looking very aggressively at what was produced on that date," Dr. Kevin Reilly, deputy director of prevention services for the California Department of Health Services, said late Monday. "Much of the feedback we got from patients right now was related to Dole packaging."

The investigation of the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened scores of people across the country and left one woman dead has been focused on three counties in the Salinas Valley, where more than half the country's spinach crop is grown.

In particular, health officials are looking at products from Natural Selection Foods, a major grower that supplies numerous companies.

By Tuesday afternoon, the number of people sickened in the month-long outbreak had climbed to 183 in 26 states; 95 people have been hospitalized and 29 have developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic-uremia, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

The Utah Department of Health and the Salt Lake Valley Health Department confirmed Monday that E. coli had been found in a bag of Dole baby spinach purchased in Utah with a use-by-date of Aug. 30, 2006, the FDA said.

The discovery followed the Sept. 20 breakthrough New Mexico lab test that confirmed the E. coli strain in a partly eaten fresh spinach package from one victim.

On Tuesday, the CDC said E. coli O157 had been isolated by state public health labs in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio from three more opened packages of spinach. The "DNA fingerprint" of the strain isolated in Pennsylvania matches that of the outbreak strain. DNA fingerprinting is under way on the strains isolated in Illinois and Ohio, the agency said.

FDA officials said last week that produce other than spinach grown in the Salinas Valley region was not implicated in the E. coli outbreak. They also said processed spinach, either frozen or canned, was not suspect.

And late last week, the FDA said consumers could resume eating fresh spinach, as long as agriculture industry officials came up with a way to label the products that didn't come from the Salinas Valley.

As of Monday night, agriculture industry officials hadn't unveiled such a labeling program.

The E. coli outbreak has prompted federal officials to consider tighter regulation of the growing and processing of fresh spinach. Some consumer groups and agriculture experts have been critical of the regulatory process, citing what they called lax oversight of the agriculture industry.

On Tuesday, three top national environmental organizations -- the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project -- warned that bacterial pollution from livestock and poultry factory farms poses a major threat to public health. They were to meet with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials Tuesday to urge strengthened regulations for farm pollution, according to a statement issued by the three groups.

According to the statement, a June 30 report by California's Central Coast Water Board found E. coli 0157:H7 in five waterways in the Salinas watershed area.

"We can't ignore the potential connection between factory farms and E. coli in humans, both through drinking water and irrigation of vegetables," Michele Merkel, an Environmental Integrity Project attorney, said in the statement.

The three groups contended, in the statement, that factory farms generate 500 million tons of manure annually and the liquid waste then runs off into streams or underground water supplies, "polluting the water with viruses, bacteria, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and excessive nutrients."

The earliest onset of illness known to be linked to spinach consumption was on Aug. 19.

The 26 affected states are: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Wisconsin has the largest number of reported cases, and the one death, a 77-year-old woman. Two other deaths, in Idaho and Maryland, are still under investigation.

So far, there have been five major recalls of fresh spinach products, all involving produce supplied by Natural Selections, according to the FDA.

Natural Selection itself recalled all of its prepackaged fresh spinach and salad mix products containing spinach on Sept. 16, a recall that covered more than 30 brands, including Dole.

River Ranch Fresh Foods, which operates in Salinas and El Centro, Calif., recalled its brands of mixed salads containing spinach on Sept. 17.

Last week, RLB Food Distributors, based in West Caldwell, N.J., said it was recalling salad mixes distributed on the East Coast.

Over the weekend, Pacific Coast Fruit Company, based in Portland, Ore., recalled salad and pizza mixes that were distributed in Alaska, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

And on Monday, Triple B Corp. in Seattle announced it was recalling some salad products distributed in the Northwest.

More information

For the latest E. coli updates, visit the CDC.

SOURCES: U.S. Food and Drug Administration; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Associated Press

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