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State death tied to E. coli: Outbreak linked to spinach

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Jesse Garza and Kawanza Newson

The first fatality in a nationwide outbreak of E. coli linked to bagged spinach that has sickened at least 50 people has been reported in Wisconsin, health officials said Thursday.

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker confirmed late Thursday that the death occurred in Wisconsin. He did not have information as to the age or gender of the victim but said the death did not occur in Milwaukee County.

There have been 11 confirmed cases of E. coli in Milwaukee County, but only four have been linked to the national outbreak of E. coli O157:H7, Baker said.

Baker and federal health officials said the most likely source of the outbreak is prepackaged washed spinach. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration urged anyone who purchased bagged spinach to throw the product away.

So far, 20 cases of E. coli have been confirmed in seven Wisconsin counties: Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, Ozaukee, Dane, Manitowoc and Outagamie, said Eva Robelia, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services.

Those affected range in age from 9 years to 78 years, Robelia said.

Late Thursday, Jason Helgerson, a spokesman for state Health and Family Services Secretary Helene Nelson, said that among the Wisconsin cases, 12 people remained in the hospital. Four of those had been diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a condition that can lead to serious kidney damage and death.

People most at risk for acquiring the syndrome are young children and older people, he said.

The FDA said that, nationwide, 50 cases of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including eight cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome and the death in Wisconsin.

Other states involved in the outbreak are Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah, the FDA said Thursday evening.

Late Thursday, Baker said Washington state had been added to the list of states affected.

Helgerson said Wisconsin has the most confirmed cases nationwide and more confirmed cases are possible.

Helgerson said a time frame for when the suspected produce had been purchased had not been determined.

Late Thursday, Roundy's Supermarkets Inc. said it was voluntarily removing all prepackaged fresh spinach and packaged salads containing fresh spinach.

The recall will affect all Roundy's stores, including Pick 'n Save, Copps and Metro Market in Wisconsin and Rainbow in Minnesota, even though that state had not yet been among those listed as being affected by the outbreak, the company said in a statement.

The FDA said epidemiological evidence suggests that bagged fresh spinach might be a possible cause.

"Given the severity of this illness and the seriousness of the outbreak, FDA believes that a warning to consumers is needed. We are working closely with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local agencies to determine the cause and scope of the problem," said Robert Brackett, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a statement issued by the FDA.

Meanwhile, a family in Oregon has filed a lawsuit against fruit and vegetable producer Dole.

David Wellborn of Salem, Ore., filed a lawsuit Thursday against Dole Food Co. in the U.S. District Court.

He said his wife, Gwyn, purchased a package of Dole spinach Aug. 21 and used that bag to make salads for her lunch that week. She became sick Aug. 25, complaining of cramps and diarrhea and her symptoms quickly progressed to unbearable stomach pain and bloody stool by Aug.

26, he said.

Although Gwyn Wellborn was seen at a hospital, doctors diagnosed her with food poisoning and sent her home, he said. She returned to the hospital later, where she was diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome.

She was released from the hospital Sept. 8 and is recovering at home.

"She can't do anything right now, she's pretty tired and her kidneys are working at a third of what they're supposed to," David Wellborn said. "I was real close to losing my wife and my son close to losing his mother - all over a bag of salad."

Bill Marler of the Seattle-based law firm Marler Clark said he is representing four cases of victims of the latest outbreak, including a Milwaukee family whose two children were hospitalized with the syndrome. In that case, a 6-year-old boy was released from the hospital Thursday. His sister remains hospitalized, Marler said.

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