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Pigs blamed for E. coli in spinach


Oct 27, 2006 | Mercury News

Wild pigs are the likely culprits behind the E. coli bacteria outbreak that killed and sickened people across the country after they ate fresh, bagged spinach.

Genetics tests have found the exact strain of the deadly bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract of a boar discovered dead at a Salinas-area ranch suspected as the source of the outbreak, California and federal health officials said Thursday.

The officials also said ``the outbreak appears to be over.''

Investigators had announced two weeks ago that they had matched the bacteria found in tainted bagged spinach to three samples of cattle manure in a pasture near the field. But this is the first time they have found convincing evidence of how the fields became contaminated.

Wild pigs are one ``real clear vehicle'' that could explain how E. coli spread from cattle on the ranch to the spinach field less than a mile away, said Kevin Reilly, deputy director of the state Department of Health Services.

He said the pigs could have tracked the bacteria into the field by smashing down fences or spread it by defecating on the spinach.

Reilly said Thursday that genetic tests also found the same strain of bacteria in a creek downstream from the spinach field as well as in four cows that graze in the nearby pasture.

But the creek, downstream from the spinach field, may have been contaminated by the pigs.

``Those wild pigs are up and down that waterway,'' he said.

The outbreak has sickened 204 people and killed three in 26 states and one in Canada. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday agreed with state health officials that there will probably be no more cases linked to the current outbreak.

Because nobody has become ill from eating spinach since Sept. 25, ``all evidence points to this outbreak having concluded,'' Reilly said.

A top FDA scientist was asked Thursday why the public should feel safe eating spinach again.

``We have no evidence to suggest people should not be eating spinach from other places except from these four ranches,'' said Jack Guzewich, of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. ``And they're no longer producing spinach this season.''

All of the tainted spinach was packaged at Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista on the same day: Aug. 15. Investigators have tracked the lettuce packaged that day to four farms in Monterey and San Benito counties.

So far, after about 750 genetic tests, only one of those farms has tested positive for the same strain of bacteria, Reilly said.

He would not name the ranch nor say Thursday which of the two counties it is located in because investigators still have not ruled out possible contamination at the other three ranches.

Investigators have also been looking at runoff from waterways, flooding, irrigation water, compost and other wildlife as possible sources. But so far only the wild pig has been fingered in a genetic lineup.

Reilly said investigators had found evidence that the pigs had punched holes in fencing designed to protect the fields. In addition, they found pig tracks leading from the fences to the field.

``Are you shooting the pigs?'' one reporter asked him.

Reilly would say only that the state health department, FDA and growers' groups were quickly developing new ``best practices'' guidelines aimed at ensuring that produce is not contaminated. That may or may not involve hunting down pigs.

One other possible recommendation will be for farmers to put up stronger fences to keep out the wildlife, he said.

The Salinas Valley is still reeling from the outbreak, Rep. Sam Farr, D-Salinas, said in an interview this week.

``Growers are telling me that sales of all leafy greens not just spinach are down between 10 and 25 percent,'' Farr said.

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