Search warrants executed in Salinas Valley spinach probeSep 4, 2006 | San Francisco Chronicle
The investigation into the source of a deadly E. coli outbreak that has sickened nearly 200 people moved into the criminal realm for the first time today, as federal search warrants were executed at two Salinas Valley produce companies.
Investigators for the FBI and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration went into Natural Selection Foods LLC in San Juan Bautista and into the Green Giant Fresh by Growers Express plant in Salinas.
The agents are looking into possible violations of federal environmental laws, authorities said.
At Natural Selection Foods, investigators were hunting for quality assurance documents and other paperwork, sources said. The company has already been tied by the FDC to the E. coli outbreak in bagged Spinach that has killed one person and sickened 191 others in North America.
"We have been told today that investigators are interested in documents that will help them advance the investigation and ultimately learn the source of the contamination, which we believe is in the field, not in our processing facilities," said Charles Sweat, chief operating officer for Natural Selection Foods. "We will continue to cooperate fully with the investigation and are as anxious as anyone to know the source of the contamination."
No arrests were made, and authorities said their investigation was in its early stages.
U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan also said that bagged spinach no longer presents a risk to the public's health, and there is no evidence that the E. coli outbreak was caused by anyone intentionally tampering with produce at either of the facilities.
"We are investigating allegations that certain spinach growers and distributors may not have taken all necessary or appropriate steps to ensure that their spinach was safe before they were placed into interstate commerce," Ryan said in a statement. "The investigation has not revealed any evidence of a new or continuing threat to public health in connection with the matters under investigation."
Sources said they asked employees at Natural Selection's food plant to leave their work stations this morning so investigators could have access to those areas. Federal officials were sorting through mounds of paperwork at the plant, including quality assurance documents related to the processing facility.
Natural Selection Foods issued a recall Sept. 15 of all its products containing spinach with "best if used by" dates of Aug. 17 to Oct. 1, 2006 soon after the FDA warned consumers not to eat bagged baby spinach.
The company packages its bagged greens under more than two dozen brand names, and receives the vegetables from at least nine farms, which are all under investigation as a possible source of contamination. Sweat said the company is still confident that the facility itself was never contaminated.
"As we previously reported, the testing of our facilities done by both government investigators and independent scientists revealed no E. coli contamination," he said. "We have believed from the onset that our facilities were not the source of the contamination and we have been concerned that the contamination may have originated in the fields where the product is grown."
Growers Express, the other company being searched today, is one of several firms licensed to sell Green Giant Fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the Growers Express Web site. Spinach is not listed on the Web site as one of the company's products.
The company is headquartered in the Salinas Valley and grows crops on more than 40,000 acres, according to the Web site.
This morning, as investigators swarmed the plant, some employees left the grounds, shutting doors behind them and barring anyone from entering the facility.
A man who answered the phone at Growers Express this afternoon told a Chronicle reporter "we're not interested, thanks a lot," before hanging up.
The E. coli outbreak began in late August, according to the Center for Disease Control. On Friday, the FDA lifted its warning about all spinach from Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties, saying the contamination seemed to be contained to spinach associated with Natural Selection Foods.
On Tuesday, investigators with the state health department said they had detected E. coli bacteria in cattle manure found in pastures next to two farms linked with tainted spinach.
Investigators said that although the bacteria was definitely the dangerous E. coli O157:h7 strain, they needed to conduct further tests to see if it had the same genetic makeup as the one that caused the outbreak.
Ten bags of spinach from eight states have tested positive for the outbreak strain, and eight of those bags were packaged as Dole baby spinach at Natural Selection Foods' plant.
Last week, the company offered to pay for victims' medical costs and said it had introduced new safety measures, including regular testing for E. coli on produce arriving at its plants. The measures are similar to safety procedures used in the beef industry.