2nd death feared from E. coli

FDA says Ohio fatality under investigation

September 19, 2006|By Delthia Ricks | Delthia Ricks,NEWSDAY

NEW YORK -- Health authorities in Ohio are investigating a death that could be linked to the nationwide outbreak of bacterial illness caused by contaminated spinach from California's coastal valley, top Food and Drug Administration officials said yesterday.

Federal public health authorities cannot confirm that the Ohio case has a definite association with the outbreak of E. coli illnesses until the state laboratory has completed its examination of the patient's specimens. Ohio authorities then must report the information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And state microbiologists in Albany are studying five more potential cases in New York, which could push the state's total to 12 cases if those under study are confirmed, spokesman Jeffrey Hammond of the state health department said yesterday. All confirmed and suspect cases, he said, are in upstate counties.

Dr. David Acheson, medical director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said what has seemed an escalating outbreak could soon reach its peak. However, as of yesterday, he reported six additional confirmed cases, bringing the national total to 114 in 21 states. Among those affected, 75 percent are women. All victims are 18 to 60 years old, he said.

New York City's former health commissioner, Dr. Pascal James Imperato, said there is no reason to believe that women are more vulnerable to E. coli infection than men.

"We have fairly good documentation that the gender distribution is equal," said Imperato, a professor of preventive medicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.

"Why the difference in these cases is perplexing. It may be an artifact of reporting or it could simply be that women have had more exposure" to tainted spinach.

Acheson said the government's recommendation against eating fresh spinach remains until further notice. He said neither federal investigators nor public health officials in California have pinpointed the source of the E. coil, which contaminated countless spinach plants.

"The most likely source of initial contamination is on the farm," he said. "We believe the farm is the initiating event and the key element is to try to figure out what went wrong on the farm."

Two produce companies have announced voluntary recalls of their products in the widening probe of farms in California's Salinas Valley. Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista and River Ranch Fresh Foods in Salinas have explained the scope of their recalls on their Web sites.

Kim St. George of River Ranch said yesterday that the company's recall centers on its salad mixes that might contain spinach. The company buys bulk spring mix from Natural Selection, which can contain spinach.

About 75 percent of the nation's spinach crop is produced in the Salinas Valley, but Acheson said there is not enough evidence at this point to implicate a single farm or a specific practice that would have caused the contamination.

The Salinas Valley has been the site of a continuing investigation of lettuce crops, in light of E. coli contaminations dating back to the mid-1990s.

In response to recurring outbreaks of E. coli in lettuce, the FDA had been investigating farming practices under its Lettuce Safety Initiative, but yesterday Acheson said the initiative is being renamed the Lettuce and Spinach Safety Initiative in response to the current outbreak.

This initiative grew out of the agency's 2004 Produce Safety Action Plan, intended to minimize the incidence of food-borne illness.

The FDA has posted information about the initiative on its Web site, saying its goal is "to alert consumers early and respond rapidly in the event of an outbreak."

Delthia Ricks writes for Newsday.

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