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E. Coli Probe Focuses on 9 Calif. Farms

Sep 20, 2006 | Washington Post

Investigators searched nine California farms for evidence of spinach-borne E. coli yesterday, going into the fields for the first time, as the number of confirmed illnesses rose by 17 to 131.

A team of about a dozen investigators from the Food and Drug Administration and the state of California fanned out to farms in Monterey County's Salinas Valley, according to Kevin Reilly, deputy director of the California Department of Health Services. The farms grew spinach for Natural Selection Foods LLC and River Ranch Fresh Foods LLC, which have recalled all of their fresh spinach, officials said.

Federal officials focused on those nine farms after records provided by Natural Selection and River Ranch indicated a link to bags of spinach eaten by those who became ill, David W. Acheson, an FDA food safety official, said.

The number of farms inspected is likely to rise in the coming days, state and federal officials said. In 2005, more than 10,000 acres of spinach was grown in the Salinas Valley.

Investigators are combing through "hundreds of different documentation related to small farms, large farms and multiple shipments," to identify other potentially contaminated fields and where tainted greens were sent, Reilly said.

Investigators in the field are looking at all aspects of agricultural practices, such as water supply, irrigation systems, and drainage, state and federal officials said. They're also looking at how the product is harvested and any animal activity that might carry E. coli onto the field.

FDA officials have not isolated E. coli in any of the spinach samples they have collected from consumers, processing plants and farms. But there are more samples to be tested.

"If the first round isn't positive, we will keep looking," Acheson said. "I'm hopeful we will find a cause, but there's a realistic possibility we won't."

Acheson said the outbreak appeared particularly virulent, though that could change as more cases are reported. Of the 131 cases, 66 people have been hospitalized, 20 have experienced kidney failure, and one person has died a higher than expected proportion.

FDA officials had no update on the death of a toddler in Ohio that was being investigated for links to the outbreak.

Some victims have retained lawyers for possible lawsuits. William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in food poisoning cases, said he is representing 30 victims of the outbreak, 11 of whom have developed kidney failure.

A central challenge to the investigation is a lack of understanding by scientists, farmers and government regulators of how E. coli contaminates produce, FDA officials and food safety researchers said.

"I think if we knew how these organisms got onto the produce, we would be out there with an intervention," said Cornell University food science expert Robert Gravani.

The spinach outbreak comes only weeks after the FDA began sending agency officials to farms to assess farming, harvesting and processing of leafy greens.

"Clearly we're not where we need to be or else this outbreak would not have happened," Acheson said.

During what would otherwise be the tail end of the growing season, many of the spinach fields in Salinas Valley were deserted yesterday.

"Right now, the spinach business is closed. It's stopped," said Joe Pezzini, chairman of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.

Because the FDA has told consumers not to eat any fresh spinach until the warning is lifted, everyone's business is at a standstill.

Typically, spinach is in the ground in Monterey County until October, Pezzini said. After that, fields in the deserts of southern Arizona and California's Imperial Valley take over.

Spinach plants take 35 days to grow from seed to harvest. Once the plants are mature, they will rot if left more than a few days.

"The decision we have to face is, 'Do we keep planting or not?' "Pezzini said. "We're hoping the FDA comes out with findings expeditiously and that they're conclusive in some way. Until then, it's wait and see."

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