A New Mexico laboratory was able to isolate potentially deadly bacteria in a bag of spinach that had sickened a resident -- a step hailed Wednesday as a significant break in the search for the source of a nationwide E. coli outbreak.
The bag that tested positive was a Dole baby spinach package with a “best if used by” date of Aug. 30. It was one of the brands recalled Friday by Natural Selection, a produce grower and processor based in San Juan Bautista, Calif.
The federal Food and Drug Administration was sure enough that tainted spinach was behind the outbreak to warn consumers last week not to eat any fresh spinach or salad mixes containing it. But until the New Mexico test, its only evidence came from asking patients who fell ill what they had eaten. The New Mexico test confirmed the link to spinach.
It was a genetic match to the E. coli O157:H7 that has sickened 146 people in 23 states, killing one and sending 76 to the hospital. Twenty-three of them have severe kidney complications.
FDA and California health department investigations have begun focusing on nine farms in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties after tracing lot codes from bags of spinach consumed by people who had fallen ill after eating the Natural Selection brand. They analyzed the processor’s invoices to see which farms provided it with spinach during the period under investigation.
Investigators have not, however, traced the New Mexico bag to a particular farm.
Although federal officials repeated their warning to not eat fresh spinach or bagged salads containing fresh spinach, they said Wednesday that they are close to lifting the ban on spinach grown outside California.
Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA’s food safety division, did not hold out hope of the ban being lifted soon on growers in the Greater Salinas Valley.
“This is not going to be a quick fix in terms of understanding what the problem was, what led to this and what we need to put in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
At a hastily arranged news conference, a spokeswoman for Natural Selection, also known as Earthbound Food, suggested that its processing plant was not the problem. According to Samantha Cabaluna, a private laboratory determined that her company’s plant was clean. “It does lead us to believe that the source of the contamination could be emanating from the field,” Cabaluna said.
Several farmers said Wednesday that they had not yet started “disking” their fields -- cutting up the unharvested spinach and turning over the soil -- in case the FDA gives them an all-clear today or Friday.
“It’s completely a waiting game,” said Joe Perrizzi, chairman of the Grower-Shipper Assn. of Central California and vice president for operations at Ocean Mist Farm, a grower-shipper based in Castroville.
Besides Natural Selection, two other processors -- Salinas-based River Ranch Fresh Foods and, as of Wednesday, RLB Food Distributors of West Caldwell, N.J. -- also recalled spinach products, bringing to 42 the number of brands that have been recalled.
Times staff writer Deborah Schoch contributed to this report.