Spinach from a large California-based farming operation has been tentatively linked to a widening bacterial outbreak that so far has caused one death and sickened 93 people in 20 states, health officials said Friday.
One day after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended against eating any fresh, bagged spinach because of the E. coli outbreak, Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, Calif., issued a voluntary recall of all its packaged products containing the fresh greens. The company, which bills itself as the largest grower and shipper of organic produce in North America, also operates under the name Earthbound Farm.
“They decided to do this for the sake of public health,” said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA’s food safety division, which along with the California Department of Health Services urged the recall. “The epidemiology is pointing to their products.
“The investigation is ongoing and it is possible that the recall
Natural Selection Foods packages spinach for more than 30 companies, including Dole Food Co., Pride of San Juan, Emeril, Sysco, River Ranch and Trader Joe’s.
The products being recalled carry “Best if Used by” dates of Aug. 17 through Oct. 1.
“The health and safety of those who consume our products is our priority today and every day,” Natural Selection officials said on their website Friday in announcing the recall. “We remain absolutely committed to providing a safe, nutritious product to all of our customers.”
Natural Selection was the first company in the country to sell pre-washed bagged salads, according to the company’s website. It now distributes 100 varieties of organic salads, vegetables, fruits, snacks and juices throughout the country, processing 30 million salad servings every week. It also produces nonorganic fruits and vegetables.
The E. coli O157:H7 strain suspected in this outbreak is particularly virulent, causing an exceptionally high rate of illness and complications.
In less than 24 hours, the number of states believed to be affected by the outbreak expanded from eight to 20, almost doubling the tally of those reported stricken. One California illness is believed to be associated with the outbreak: a Shasta County adult who was hospitalized and is recovering at home.
At least 14 people have developed serious conditions that can lead to kidney failure, officials said. More than 29 have been hospitalized.
“Numbers are going up pretty rapidly,” said William E. Keene, senior epidemiologist with the Oregon public health division.
All 94 cases share the same genetic fingerprint, suggesting they come from a common source, officials said. Moreover, interviews conducted by epidemiologists -- disease detectives -- indicate that almost everyone who has become ill ate packaged spinach. The link is not definitive, however, and officials have not found a bag of spinach containing the E. coli strain.
Produce need be contaminated with only a small amount of E. coli for a person to fall ill. For unknown reasons, the infections have been associated only with spinach that has been prepackaged. That raises the possibility that the contamination occurred either in fields dedicated to such spinach or during processing.
As supermarkets -- including Ralphs, Vons and Trader Joe’s -- began tossing out spinach packages, Acheson expanded the earlier FDA warning to say that consumers should not eat anything containing prepackaged fresh spinach, including salads.
Grocery chains said consumers who bought prepackaged spinach could return it for a full refund.
In an “abundance of caution,” the National Restaurant Assn. urged eateries to temporarily remove all menu items containing any fresh spinach, including the unpackaged variety.
Restaurants hastened to adjust their menus. “Everything with spinach is off our menus in 110 restaurants nationwide,” said Cheesecake Factory spokesman Howard Gordon. That included spinach salads, firecracker salmon rolls and, as a precautionary measure, even spinach dip made with frozen spinach, which does not fall under the FDA advisory.
“We take very seriously those types of recommendations,” Gordon said.
The potential California connection is a huge blow to the state’s fresh spinach growers, who say that, in general, produce safety has vastly improved in the last decade. Americans buy about $250 million of packaged spinach annually, most of it grown in California.
Production of the bagged greens has virtually stopped, said Bob Martin, general manager of Rio Farms, a produce operation in King City, about 150 miles south of San Francisco. “We’ve shut down everything,” he said of his operation. “Trucks in transit, they’re told to take it and dump it. They’re leaving spinach in the field; they can’t harvest it.”
State and federal officials had already been looking intently at California farms as possible sources of E. coli contamination. Weeks before the current outbreak was identified, they had launched a wide-ranging evaluation of growing and processing practices in the Salinas Valley, focusing on leafy greens.
That evaluation stems from eight previous outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 nationally since 1995, all linked to lettuce and spinach grown in the area, known as the “Salad Bowl of the World.” Those outbreaks sickened at least 217 people around the nation and killed two at a retirement home in Northern California.
The strain of E. coli involved in the current outbreak is the same one that caused high-profile outbreaks associated with Jack-in-the-Box hamburgers and Odwalla apple juice in the mid-1990s.
Most of the people infected in the latest outbreak are adult women, although those most vulnerable to serious illness are the very young and the very old. In Wisconsin, where the one death occurred and 28 other people have been sickened, the patients’ ages ranged from 9 to 78.
Officials urged anyone with bloody diarrhea or diarrhea accompanied by severe cramps -- signs of E. coli infection -- to contact a doctor.
When ingested, E. coli O157:H7 can produce powerful toxins and, in rare cases, trigger a serious condition that can lead to kidney failure.
The officials said that although boiling spinach would kill the bacteria, they recommended against eating the packaged greens at all because there are no set guidelines on how long and at what temperature to cook them to ensure safety.
E. coli lives harmlessly in the intestines of cattle and is present in manure. It can be passed to humans when they ingest the bacterium in contaminated food.
How E. coli is contaminating fresh produce is a mystery to health officials.
The possibilities include tainted dust blowing over fields, droppings from birds who have eaten tainted cattle droppings, contaminated floodwater and workers carrying bacteria on their hands or clothes.
At restaurants on the Larchmont Village strip in Los Angeles, the news of the tainted spinach was treated cautiously by some but with disdain by others.
At the Cafe du Village, Holley Heitz, a producer, was digging into a salad of grilled chicken on a bed of greens when asked about the scare.
“I don’t worry about that kind of stuff,” she said. “I don’t think about it.” But then she turned to the waiter and asked, “This isn’t bagged spinach, is it?”
At Girasole, waiter Jose Almaraz said none of the spinach was bagged but that he threw away two bags at home when he heard the news.
At a Ralphs at 3rd and La Brea, the whole shelf where spinach used to be stocked was empty. A note said: “To date, preliminary evidence suggests that fresh bagged spinach may be a possible cause of this outbreak .... Please check your refrigerator for any bagged or bulk spinach. Do not eat it. Either destroy it or return to point of purchase.”
Times staff writers Jerry Hirsch, Alana Semuels and J. Michael Kennedy contributed to this report.
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Cases in 20 states
E. coli cases, including one death in Wisconsin, linked to bagged spinach, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by state:
Source: Associated Press
Los Angeles Times
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Natural Selection Foods has recalled all packages of its fresh spinach and any salad with spinach in a blend because they are possibly contaminated with E. coli. The packages have “Best if Used by” dates of Aug. 17 through Oct. 1. The recalled brands are:
Mills Family Farm
Natural Selection Foods
Pride of San Juan
Tanimura & Antle
The Farmer’s Market
Source: Associated Press