An elderly Nebraska woman who died of kidney failure Aug. 31 was infected with E. coli from eating fresh spinach, bringing to three the number of people who have perished in a nationwide outbreak of the bacteria, health officials said Friday.
Ruby Trautz, 84, of Omaha, ate Dole baby spinach contaminated with the same strain of E. coli that has sickened at least 190 other people around the country and killed two others, state health officials said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that the woman's death had been linked to the outbreak.
The state's tests, performed this week, confirmed earlier results from an independent lab that a family member had hired because "he was really sure that it was the spinach that made her ill," said Marla Augustine, spokeswoman for Nebraska Health and Human Services System.
Trautz's son-in-law, who was sickened with E. coli but survived, has also tested positive for the same strain, Augustine said.
According to her obituary in The Bellevue Leader, Trautz was born in Manzanor, Calif., and worked for the NASA Ames Research Center -- then called the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory -- at Moffett Field as a 17-year-old.
She worked as a nurse in several California hospitals before serving as a flight nurse in the Air Force.
She wanted to be the first senior citizen on a space flight, the obituary said.
Through their Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler, Trautz's family declined to comment Friday.
The news came a day after Idaho health officials confirmed that a 2-year-old boy had died from eating contaminated greens. Tainted spinach also killed an elderly Wisconsin woman.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration lifted a two-week consumer warning on fresh spinach, and on Wednesday, the FBI searched San Juan Bautista-based Natural Selection Foods and Salinas-based Growers Express for evidence of possible environmental-law violations. Agents sifted through records for indications of whether the spinach producers skirted proper food-handling procedures.
Warrants still sealed
On Friday, spokesmen with the FBI and the U.S. attorney's Northern California district office confirmed that the search warrants permitting the FBI to raid the two companies remained sealed in the federal courthouse in San Jose.
Luke Macaulay, U.S. attorney public affairs officer, said he could not comment on why the search warrants and affidavits are sealed, nor could he comment on whether the investigation had expanded.
The investigation, in its early stages, may or may not lead to criminal charges and could spread to other spinach producers, FBI officials have said.
Dave Babcock, an attorney with the Seattle-based Marler Clark Law Firm which has been involved in several high-profile food poisoning cases, said statutes in the 1938 Federal Food and Drug and Cosmetics Act make it a crime simply to sell products that are unsafe for human consumption, whether or not a company realized the products were adulterated.
The penalty for a single infraction of selling such products is $1,000 or less than a year in jail.
But criminal charges in food safety incidents aren't usually filed against companies simply for selling contaminated products, Babcock said.
Penalties for cover-up
More often, more serious charges with bigger fines and jail time are filed when company officials try to cover up mistakes they made that led to an outbreak, he said.
In 2004, for example, an operations manager at a food distribution warehouse in Illinois was charged with a felony after he lied to federal authorities about ammonia-tainted chicken tenders from his warehouse that sickened more than 100 schoolchildren and teachers at a Chicago-area school.
The chicken had been held for eight days in a storage facility, sitting directly below an ammonia leak. Instead of throwing away the tainted meat, the manager ordered employees to put it in a room with charcoal to get rid of the ammonia smell, repackage it and send it to schools.
At Laraway Elementary School, where the chicken eventually ended up, children started running into the hallway about 25 minutes after lunch, vomiting. No one was permanently harmed in the incident.
When asked later whether he had repackaged the chicken and how long the ammonia had been leaking, he lied, Babcock said, and was later sent to jail.
The takeaway point, Babcock said, is there is a wide range of ways a company can violate the 1938 act and, therefore, a range of charges prosecutors can choose to file, depending on what the FDA and FBI investigators find.
"You don't have to arrest every single jaywalker or every single speeder," he said.