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Spinach scare could hurt market

The nationwide E. coli outbreak from bagged spinach could seriously dampen the popularity of prewashed, packaged salads with time-pressed and diet-conscious Americans, reports the Associated Press.

The Food and Drug Administration’s announcement Wednesday that the bug that sickened hundreds of people matched a strain was found in an opened bag of Dole spinach.

So far, there has been no evidence the source of the outbreak can be traced to the packaging process or that the salad bags themselves breed bacteria such as E. coli, which is found in animal and human waste.

Seattle lawyer Bill Marler, who has represented dozens of clients in lawsuits connected to contaminated bagged leafy greens, said he’s representing more than 30 clients from 12 states over the current E. coli outbreak. He said he reached a settlement for his clients with the company in five previous cases.

Based on past experience, Marler said he suspects bacteria-tainted irrigation or flood water is behind the current outbreak. "Plants like spinach and lettuce can absorb not just water but bacteria," Marler said. "All the washing and rinsing and triple washing and nice bags with smiley faces on them mean nothing because the product is then just a little tiny bomb waiting for someone to eat it."

Packaged greens, a category the industry calls "value-added" produce, was invented by a Salinas company, Fresh Harvest, in the late 1970s. Today, leading processors such as Fresh Express, NewStar and River Ranch Foods are based in Salinas.

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