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Agents search 2 spinach facilities

Oct 5, 2006 | USA Today

Federal agents from the FBI and Food and Drug Administration searched two spinach-packing companies in California on Wednesday in connection with the outbreak of E. coli in fresh spinach.

The San Francisco U.S. Attorney's Office said warrants were served on Natural Selection Foods and Growers Express. Agents are investigating whether companies took appropriate safety measures, said U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan in a statement. He also said there is no indication the spinach was intentionally contaminated.

FBI spokesman Joe Schadler said authorities are investigating possible felony violations of federal environmental laws.

The FDA said Friday that all spinach implicated in the nationwide outbreak traced back to Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista. Calls to that company were not returned Wednesday. In a statement, its CEO, Charles Sweat, defended his plant's cleanliness. Natural Selection is now testing incoming product.

Growers Express, a grower and packer in Salinas, had no immediate comment. Until Wednesday, it had not been named in the investigation.

Also on Friday, the FDA said fresh spinach was as safe to eat as it was before the outbreak except for products that had already been recalled and should no longer be in circulation.

Ryan said the investigation has not revealed any evidence of a new or continuing threat. But the news of the FBI involvement and search for criminal action comes just as grocers start to restock shelves with fresh spinach.

Despite the FDA's clearance, consumers may have to hunt for spinach. Some grocers, including Wal-Mart and Costco Wholesale, have yet to make plans to reintroduce fresh spinach. Other grocers have started but supplies may be limited. And major spinach processors say it'll take weeks or months to fully ramp up production.

"We'll be back into spinach, I just cannot tell you when," says Jeff Lyons, senior vice president for fresh foods for Costco. Given the outstanding question of how the outbreak started, Lyons says consumers are still too wary.

Kroger, with 2,500 stores, expects to have packaged and bulk product in most stores by Saturday. Food Lion, with 1,200 stores, is aiming for early next week, if supplies are available, spokesman Jeff Lowrance says.

Publix, with 883 stores, could not give a time frame. It intended to get spinach from Canada, but the growing season was ending and product wasn't available, spokeswoman Maria Brous says.

Other Salinas Valley processors resumed production in recent days. Fresh Express, the leading packaged salad processor, hopes to be at full production within weeks, President Tanios Viviani says. It resumed processing on Monday. Viviani says it'll take time for customers to reassure themselves that their suppliers are good and for consumers to understand the safety of the product, despite the outbreak.

River Ranch Fresh Foods resumed shipping spinach on Tuesday. It cannot say when it'll be at 100%.

"We're starting very, very slowly," company spokesman Barry Eisenberg says. Eisenberg says the company's primary customers, supermarkets, "are just not sure what the consumer response will be."

Whole Foods, a leading retailer of natural and organic foods, might provide cause for optimism. It resumed sales of fresh bunched spinach late last week in some stores. Weekend sales were almost at normal levels, spokeswoman Kate Lowery says.

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