Stores, eateries ditch spinach

In Maryland and across the country, restaurants and grocery stores are dumping packaged fresh spinach blamed for illness in 20 states, one death

September 16, 2006|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Reporter

Merchants across the nation pulled fresh spinach off shelves and salad bars yesterday in response to an expanding nationwide outbreak of the potentially deadly E. coli bacterium.

The FDA said that only spinach sold in bags and plastic clamshells appears to be the source of an outbreak that has spread across the country.

So far authorities have reported 94 cases in 20 states, the FDA said. Fourteen of those stricken have developed a severe illness, and one has died.

No cases have been reported in Maryland. But restaurant owners and supermarket managers across the state stopped selling the vegetable with a reputation for being healthful to eat. And at least some nervous consumers said they would avoid all leafy produce.

Yesterday, the popular spinach salad at Donna's with its feta, artichoke hearts, red peppers, olives and pesto vinaigrette was missing its namesake vegetable.

In fact, salads and entrees at all five cafe locations that normally feature the dark green, spear-shaped leaves carried romaine or arugula instead.

"People aren't freaking out about it, but we are just taking precautions," owner Donna Crivello said.

At least some of the reported illnesses have been linked to packaged spinach distributed by Natural Selection Foods/Earthbound Farm of San Juan Bautista, Calif., said Dr. David W.K. Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's chief medical officer.

The germ has not been found in the spinach sold by Natural Selection or any other company, Acheson said, but at least some of those who fell ill said they purchased products sold by the California company.

After being notified by the FDA, Acheson said, the company voluntarily recalled all its packaged products that contain spinach.

But he cautioned consumers not to eat packaged spinach from any source, pending further investigation. It is "possible," he said, that other producers could be affected.

Authorities hope to pinpoint the source of the contamination with the potentially fatal 0157:H7 strain of E. coli within days.

So far people have fallen ill in California, Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Wisconsin accounted for many of the cases of E. coli infection, including the lone death, Gov. James E. Doyle told the Associated Press. He warned that the outbreak could continue. "Don't assume anything is over," he said.

The voluntary recall by Natural Selections affects products with best-if-used-by dates that cover the period of Aug. 17 to Oct. 4, Acheson said. Among the other brands produced by Natural Selections are Rave Spinach, Dole, Earthbound Farm, Trader Joe's, Ready Pac and Green Harvest.

"What we do is produce food that we want to be healthy and safe for consumers, so this is a tragedy for us," said Natural Selection Foods spokeswoman Samantha Cabaluna.

So far authorities have not ordered a mandatory recall of packaged spinach or banned its sale.

But in Maryland and around the country, many merchants voluntarily stopped selling packaged spinach yesterday.

Among the Maryland markets to withdraw packaged spinach, the state health department said, were Giant, Martin's, Shoppers Food Warehouse, Safeway, Mars, Superfresh and Food Lion.

Although E. coli can be killed by cooking, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the Baltimore City health commissioner, recommended that consumers take the added precaution of disposing of any bagged or packaged fresh spinach they have on hand.

"You could surely kill the E. coli just as you can kill it in a hamburger," he said. "But you don't want to mess around with E. coli 0157:H7."

Consumers were warned not to open bagged spinach because that could contaminate hands and kitchen surfaces with the potentially deadly germ. Anyone who has eaten spinach out of a package and feels ill should call a doctor, authorities said.

Warning by e-mail

Dennis Zorn, the owner of the independent Eddie's of Eager Street in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood, telephoned his fresh vegetable wholesaler yesterday afternoon to ask what he should do with eight boxes of crackling spinach packages and plastic clamshells stacked in his walk-in refrigerator.

Like many grocers, he had taken all his packaged spinach off his shelves and out of his salad bar before the store opened, in response to an e-mailed warning from the FDA.

His supplier asked him to set the vegetable aside for possible testing by federal authorities.

Donna Crivello's cafes usually get a case of spinach daily. But her suppliers - L&M Produce Inc. of Jessup and Sysco Food Services of Baltimore - recalled all spinach shipments early in the morning.

"Sysco voluntarily recalled the mesclun greens that we got, so we sent that back to them, too," Crivello said. "I don't think that has become a real threat at this point, but I think they are being cautious."

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