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Probe finds E. coli in spinach package


Times Union (New York)

Andrew Bridges, Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Spinach found in the refrigerator of a person sickened by E. coli was contaminated with the bacteria, providing a break Wednesday for investigators seeking the origin of the outbreak.

Federal and state investigators narrowed their hunt to three California counties in the greater Salinas Valley -- Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara, said Dr. David Acheson of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

"Yesterday we had it down to California. Today we've got it down to three counties," Acheson said. "We want it down to a salad bowl and eventually a spinach leaf."

The package of contaminated Dole baby spinach came from the refrigerator of a patient who ate some of the leafy greens before becoming ill, New Mexico Department of Health officials said. The state is one of 23 reporting food-poisoning cases.

The spinach tested positive for the same strain of E. coli linked to the outbreak, Acheson said. Dole is one of the brands of spinach recalled Friday by Natural Selection Foods LLC, of San Juan Bautista, Calif.

The tainted greens -- conventionally grown spinach and not organic -- came from one of the farmers that supplies spinach to Natural Selection, said Samantha Cabaluna, spokeswoman for Natural Selection.

Other bags of fresh spinach recovered elsewhere in the country also were being tested in the investigation.

"It's certainly premature to say only this bag is going to test positive. There are others in the works," Acheson said.

Officials continued to recommend consumers not eat fresh spinach, as the tally of those sickened rose to 146, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One person has died.

Government and industry officials were working on how to allow spinach grown elsewhere back on the market, Acheson said.

Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank R. Lautenberg, both of New Jersey, pushed the FDA to assure the public spinach grown in their state is safe.

"As the nation's fourth-largest spinach producer, spinach farming is a multimillion-dollar industry for the Garden State," Menendez said.

"That is why we are imploring the FDA to move quickly in identifying the source of the infected spinach."

Investigators began visiting farms in the Salinas Valley on Tuesday, seeking signs of past flooding or cases in which contaminated surface areas had come into contact with crops. They also were looking for potential sources of bacteria inside packing plants.

California produces 74 percent of the nation's fresh spinach crop. The Salinas Valley accounts for roughly three-quarters of the state's share, and it has been the focus of the investigation. The area has links to both Natural Selection Foods and a second company that's also recalled fresh spinach products, River Ranch Fresh Foods of Salinas.

Also Wednesday, Arizona and Colorado were added the list of states reporting E. coli cases. The other states are California, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Wisconsin has reported the most cases, as well as the lone death.

Among those sickened, 71 percent were women. Among those victims who could provide a date, they reported falling sick between Aug. 19 and Sept. 5, according to the CDC.

New Mexico's public health laboratory isolated E. coli from the bag of opened spinach and then completed "DNA fingerprinting" tests late Tuesday. State and federal officials then matched it to the strain of the bacteria -- E. coli O157:H7 -- implicated in the outbreak.

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