Spokane E. coli investigation continues

SPOKANE — Investigators for an insurance company began inspecting a Spokane Produce plant this week as the building remained partially closed after an E. coli outbreak.

The team will take samples, look for problems and suggest ways to reduce contamination risks, said Mansour Samadpour, a consultant hired by the insurance company.

Samadpour specializes in rapid detection of outbreaks of infectious diseases and identification of outbreak culprits. He is an assistant professor of environmental health at the University of Washington.

A critical step in fresh-cut produce processing is washing, which typically is done in cold, chlorinated water, said Samadpour.

"These issues usually go back to the farm," Samadpour said Tuesday.

There is little government oversight of irrigation water quality on produce farms, he said.

The outbreak of the E. coli bacterium sickened more than 40 girls who attended a drill team camp at Eastern Washington University in mid-July. Some of the girls spread the illness to several more people at a church camp the next week.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration alerted consumers July 29 to throw out cut, packaged romaine lettuce from Spokane Produce.

None of the lettuce was tested by investigators before the alert. But surveys and sales invoices linked the product to the drill team camp and to a sick woman in Walla Walla. In addition, bacterial samples from the sick people shared the same genetic fingerprint.

There have been six separate E. coli cases in the state with the same genetic indicators, said Marcia Goldoft, a medical epidemiologist with the Washington Department of Health.

The FDA is looking for food links in those additional cases, Goldoft said.

"Were working to get information from (Spokane Produce)," said Charles Breen, the FDA's Seattle district director. "The investigation is not closed out."

Bagged, prewashed salad is a $1.5 billion industry, said Jim Gorny, technical director for the International Fresh-cut Produce Association.

If levels of disinfectant are too low in wash water, Gorny said, the washing process could spread bacteria.

From 1990 to 2001, contaminated produce caused 148 outbreaks of food-borne illness in the United States, with 10,504 individual cases of food poisoning, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest in a 2001 report.