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Dole caught up in fears of E. coli spread

WESTLAKE VILLAGE - Dole Food Co. is among those caught up in a national outbreak of harmful bacteria found in packages of spinach that has left 100 people ill and one dead across 20 states.

An Oregon woman sued Dole, claiming that she suffered severe kidney damage after eating a bag of Dole baby spinach containing harmful bacteria.

Westlake Village-based Dole is not the only company believed to have packaged the tainted spinach.

All prepackaged spinach should be thrown out, according to a warning Thursday from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which did not specify any brands.

Other types of packaged greens are apparently safe to eat.

Dole spokesman Marty Ordman declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the company is "working with the authorities" to determine the cause of the outbreak.

The E. coli outbreak has caused 50 people in eight states to become ill and is suspected in one death, according to the FDA.

That could make it "the largest E. coli outbreak tied to lettuce or spinach that we've ever seen," said the Oregon woman's lawyer, Bill Marler.

The combination of the FDA announcement and the lawsuit means more bad news for Dole.

Rumors that the company's prepackaged salad was unsafe to eat gained enough traction that Dole released a statement about them.

"These stories are recirculating news of an isolated and voluntary product recall that took place last year," reads a statement on the company's Web site.

"Unfortunately, old news and inaccurate information that lingers on the Internet for years can be mistaken for Advertisement current news."

The past rumors are not "connected" to the E. coli outbreak, Ordman said.

Dole employees follow strict sanitizing procedures in processing plants, Ordman said. They clean their knives several times a day, are not allowed to chew gum or smoke, and they wear gloves and hairnets, he said.

The source of the current outbreak is still unknown, but Marler said in past instances leafy greens have been contaminated in the fields by cattle, deer or sheep feces, which contain E. coli. Contamination can occur during a flood or when water used on the plants comes into contact with animal feces, he added.

"Once it gets on the spinach, it's difficult to wash off," said Marler, who practices in Seattle.

Marler said his client, Gwyn Wellborn, suffered as the bacteria-released toxins that hurt her red blood cells, depriving her kidney of oxygen.

Wellborn, 26, was in the intensive care unit for 10 days before recovering with the help of blood transfusions, Marler said.

Marler is also representing a Wisconsin family that claims its two children were sickened by Dole spinach.

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