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Pattern of E. Coli Outbreaks Is Seen

Sep 18, 2006 | AP Federal health officials said Monday that before the current E. coli outbreak there had been 19 food-poisoning outbreaks since 1995 linked to lettuce and spinach. At least eight of those were traced to produce grown in the Salinas Valley in California. The outbreaks involved more than 400 cases of sickness and two deaths.

The outbreaks led the Food and Drug Administration to write to California farmers last November, urging them to improve the safety of produce.

“In light of continuing outbreaks, it is clear that more needs to be done,” Robert Brackett of the F.D.A. wrote in a Nov. 4, 2005, letter.

Suggested actions included discarding any produce that comes into contact with floodwaters. Rivers and creeks in the Salinas watershed are known to be periodically contaminated with E. coli, Mr. Brackett said.

The agency does not consider the current contamination deliberate.

“There is always a question in the back of our mind whether it may have been a deliberate attack on the food supply,” said Dr. David Acheson of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Currently, there is nothing in the epidemiology to consider this deliberate.”

State and federal officials have traced the current outbreak to a California company’s fresh spinach, but they have not pinpointed the source of the bacteria that have killed one person and sickened at least 113.

On Monday, Illinois and Nebraska joined the list of states with confirmed cases.

The F.D.A. and the California Department of Health Services were reviewing irrigation methods, harvest conditions and other practices at farms possibly involved in the outbreak. Test results on samples from produce packing plants are due in a week or more, Dr. Acheson said.

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