E. coli source hunt goes on

Search for germs in spinach is complex

September 17, 2006|By New York Times News Service

SALINAS, Calif. -- Packaged spinach salad continued to disappear from food store shelves across the country yesterday as government researchers pressed on with a complicated search for the source of bacterial contamination that has sickened more than 100 people in 20 states and caused one death.

Officials said yesterday that the number of people affected by the E. coli outbreak now stood at 102, up from 94 the day before.

Officials at the Food and Drug Administration announced Friday that they detected an "epidemiological link" between the outbreak of infections of E. coli 0157:H7 and spinach produced by Natural Selection Foods, a company that grows and packages fresh greens in San Juan Bautista, Calif., and is best known for its organic Earthbound Farm brand.

But company executives and health officials emphasized yesterday that no E. coli bacteria had been found in Natural Selection plants or on any salad the company distributed.

With the wide publication of the Earthbound Farm name in connection with the outbreak, consumers wondered whether organic farm practices were implicated. But no conclusive link has emerged between the infection and organic farming, Natural Selection executives and organic farming experts said.

Natural Selection distributes many products grown by its farmers that are not certified organic, and it has a large business packing fresh greens for other nonorganic growers, including Dole.

Growers and scientists were beginning to grasp the serious difficulties the FDA faces in trying to pinpoint the source of the bacteria and eliminate it from the food supply. Health and agriculture experts said E. coli could creep into fresh leafy food at many points, from the field to the packing plant to the store. Natural Selection packs produce from 150 organic farmers in four states who are its direct partners in Earthbound Farm, as well as farmers whose produce sells under at least two dozen other brands.

Natural Selections has issued a voluntary recall of all its products containing spinach carrying "Best if used by" dates from Aug. 17 to Oct. 1. FDA officials said a number of people who were infected had reported eating spinach salads from brands the company packs. But officials warned that investigation could point to other companies.

Growers said the complexities of the process of farming, picking, washing and packing fresh leafy greens might make the contamination extraordinarily difficult to pinpoint.

"To trace this, you can go from the ground up," said Tim Chelling, a spokesman for Western Growers, which represents 3,000 growers and shippers in California and Arizona. Chelling said, "Testing the soil and the growing area would be the first possible point of entry."

Farming procedures in conventional, nonorganic fields are not regulated by the government.

The production process, Chelling said, involves a host of people, such as pickers and produce stockers, as well as many kinds of farm equipment and cleaning machinery.

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