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E. coli strain may be more potent

Sep 20, 2006 | AP

Federal health officials are investigating whether a more potent strain of E. coli is behind an outbreak linked to fresh spinach that has sickened at least 131 people, half of whom have been hospitalized.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that fully 50 percent of those reported sick in the outbreak were hospitalized. That's more than the 25 percent to 30 percent seen in other E. coli outbreaks, said Dr. David Acheson of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

"We're running higher than that," Acheson told reporters in a conference call. "One possibility is this is a virulent strain."

Also unexpected was the 15 percent of food-poisoning victims who developed a type of kidney failure called hemolytic-uremic syndrome. Five percent is more typical, Acheson said.

He cautioned that the numbers could be skewed by underreporting of less severe cases of illness. "It's too early to say at this point," he added.

Reports of illness continued to trickle into the CDC — the tally was up from Monday's 114 sickened, though the death toll remained at one, a 77-year-old woman from Wisconsin. Officials said the cases appeared to have occurred earlier but were only now being reported and that consumers were no longer being exposed to contaminated spinach. No one appears to have fallen ill since Sept. 5, the CDC said.

Still, the FDA continued to warn people not to eat raw spinach.

Natural Selection Foods, a San Juan Bautista, Calif., company whose multiple brands many people reported eating before falling sick, has recalled spinach products distributed throughout the United States. The company also distributed spinach to Canada, Mexico and Taiwan.

River Ranch Fresh Foods of Salinas, Calif., and RLB Food Distributors, based in West Caldwell, N.J., recalled salad mixes containing spinach.

FDA inspectors visited nine California farms Tuesday, seeking signs of past flooding or cases where contaminated surface areas may have come into contact with crops, said Robert Brackett, director of the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

They were on the lookout for animal droppings in the fields; checking on sanitary conditions inside the plants where produce is processed; and taking samples from produce, as well as from common areas in the processing plants that could harbor bacteria.

"They will look for any obvious or even suspected places where this organism could gain access to the produce," said Brackett, while acknowledging it was unlikely they would pinpoint the exact source of the contamination.

Meanwhile, farmers in California's Salinas Valley started plowing under their spinach crops and laying off workers.

Spinach was a $325 million industry in the U.S. in 2005, and California produced 74 percent of the nation's fresh crop and 67 percent of the spinach that gets frozen or canned. The Salinas Valley accounts for roughly three-quarters of the state's share.

With that market disappearing in a matter of days, some valley farmers were writing off their spinach crops, plowing the fields under and preparing to plant broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.

With about a month left in the current growing season, those who invested most heavily in spinach are still hoping the FDA will lift its warning before the last of their leaves are ready to be picked, said Henry Gonzales, Monterey County's chief deputy agriculture commissioner.

Spinach farmers also were laying off field hands, but most quickly found work picking other crops in what is typically a busy harvest season, said Marc Grossman of the United Farm Workers union.

"The overall effect is not that great because spinach is a relatively small part of growing there," he said. "Many workers have been able to find work in lettuce and broccoli."

Depending on how long the spinach warning lasts, related businesses such as seed companies and pesticide sprayers could also take a hit, Gonzales said.

Because it takes 35 days for spinach to mature, there would be enough time for a modest recovery if the scare ends quickly, said Joseph Pezzini, vice president of operations for Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville. But until that happens, the uncertainty creates difficult choices.

"Do you keep planting? Do you cut back? What do you do? We don't know," he said.

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