SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. - Earthbound Farm, the country's largest grower of organic produce, is facing unwelcome scrutiny after federal officials linked a nationwide E. coli outbreak to its bagged spinach.
The company, also known by its legal name Natural Selection Foods LLC, recalled and stopped shipping all its spinach products after E. coli outbreaks killed one person and sickened nearly 100 others in 19 states.
Earthbound officials were working with state and federal health inspectors to pinpoint the source of the contamination, spokeswoman Samantha Cabaluna said Saturday.
"We're not even thinking about the cost right now," Cabaluna said.
"We're trying to do the right thing, to protect public health and get to the bottom of this."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers not to eat fresh spinach, and grocery stores nationwide have pulled nearly all spinach products from their shelves. As the investigation continues, other brands may be implicated, officials said.
All of Earthbound's spinach is grown in fields around the Salinas Valley, then washed and packaged at its plant in San Juan Bautista, about 90 miles south of San Francisco, Cabaluna said.
Privately held Earthbound is under contract with other food companies to produce and package spinach under about 30 different brand labels sold in supermarkets across North America.
The company packages both organic and conventionally grown spinach in separate areas at its San Juan Bautista plant, but it was still unclear which type of spinach made people ill, Cabaluna said.
Customers who bought bagged spinach produced by Earthbound should return the product to the grocery store where they bought it or contact the company for a refund, Cabaluna said.
"We're very, very upset about this because we're in the business of providing healthy foods," Cabaluna said.
Earthbound was started as a 2 1/2 acre farm by New York natives Myra and Drew Goodman in 1984.
The company began selling bags of pre-washed salads in 1986. Since then, the market for ready-to-eat bagged greens has grown to nearly $3 billion.
With about 1,100 employees, Earthbound now sells more than 100 types of fruits and vegetables grown on 29,000 acres in California, Arizona, Mexico and other locations in the U.S. and abroad.
Earthbound sells more than 70 percent of the country's bagged organic salad and processes about 30 million salad servings each week, according to the company. Its produce can be found in nearly three-quarters of U.S. supermarkets and in all 50 states and Canada.
Calabuna did not know how much bagged spinach the company grows and processes each year.
About 74 percent of the fresh market spinach grown in the U.S. comes from California, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.
The situation indicates a larger problem within the farming and distribution process, federation spokesman Dave Kranz said.
"First, we need to make sure everything is as tight as can be on everyone's individual operations," Kranz said, "and then we see if other changes to the process need to be made."