E coli cases reach 192; feds search produce plants

Oct 5, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – A nationwide outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 infections linked to fresh spinach has increased to 192 cases and triggered what was described as a federal raid on two produce processing plants.

The 192 cases represent an increase of 5 since Sep 28, according to updates from the Food and Drug Administration (yesterday) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (Oct 3). Ninety-eight people (51%) were hospitalized, and 30 cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a serious kidney condition, hae been reported. The outbreak has affected people in 26 states and one Canadian.

The death toll remains at one, but health officials in Maryland and Idaho are still waiting for lab results in two deaths that may be related to the outbreak.

Last week, the FDA announced laboratory and epidemiologic evidence from multiple states, and the CDC determined that all spinach involved in the outbreak has been linked to Natural Selection Foods, based in San Juan Batista, Calif. The company recalled its products on Sep 15; four other companies recalled products because they had received spinach from Natural Selection Foods.

Samples from eleven bags of spinach have been confirmed to contain the outbreak strain of E coli; all but one were Dole baby spinach, one of the brands distributed by Natural Selection Foods. A sample from Nevada did not list the brand.

Meanwhile, the outbreak has prompted a criminal investigation by the FBI and FDA. According to an Associated Press (AP) report today, federal agents executed search warrants yesterday at a Natural Selection Foods facility in San Juan Batista and a Growers Express plant in Salinas (Calif.) to determine if the companies violated food safety or environmental laws.

"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," US Attorney Kevin Ryan told the AP.

Federal officials told the AP they didn’t think anyone deliberately contaminated any spinach.

It's not clear why investigators searched the Growers Express facility. A press release on the company’s Web site said Growers Express does not process bagged spinach. It packages and markets a variety of fresh vegetables under the Western Express, Farm Day, and Green Giant Express labels, none of which has been connected to the fresh spinach recall. "The small amount of bagged spinach marketed by Growers Express is purchased from outside processors, none of which have been connected to the recent recall," the company said. The firm said it was cooperating with federal investigators.

Natural Selection Foods said in its press release that it had already provided the FDA and the California Department of Health with the documents sought yesterday, but that it was cooperating with the investigation. The company also said tests done at its processing facilities by independent scientists and government investigators have come back negative, suggesting the contamination source is at the farm level.

The FDA has not cleared any of the processing plants and continues to investigate nine farms in three counties in the greater Salinas Valley growing area.

In its update on the outbreak yesterday, the FDA pointed to a long history of E coli outbreaks involving leafy greens from central California. Though other companies have not been implicated in this particular outbreak, the FDA said it and the state of California expect the industry to develop comprehensive plans to minimize the risk of another outbreak.

Implementing the plans will be voluntary, but the FDA and the State of California said they haven’t ruled out the possibility of future regulatory changes.

See also:

Oct 4 FDA press release
http://www.fda.gov/bbs/topics/NEWS/2006/NEW01476.html

Oct 4 Natural Selection Foods press release
http://www.nsfoods.com/

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