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Utah sees increase in E. coli Outbreaks blamed on 'pre-washed' spinach

By Lois M. Collins

Deseret Morning News

Utah is one of eight states experiencing unusually high numbers of E. coli cases, and at least some of the outbreaks appear to be linked to "pre-washed" spinach, according to state health officials and the Food and Drug Administration.

"Utah is experiencing a much higher rate of enterohemorrhagic E. coli than normal," said Susan Mottice, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health. "Epidemiologists in Utah are trying to sort through different sources. It doesn't look like they are all the same source, indicating more than one cluster of illness."

Statewide, 10 cases are being investigated so far. "That number will change," Mottice said. "It's an ongoing and active investigation." The Utah outbreak is centered along the Wasatch Front.

Health officials are also assessing the degree of illness, which ranges from diarrhea to the more severe hemolytic uremic syndrome, which is a form of kidney failure. Nationwide, about 50 cases have been confirmed — including eight HUS cases and one death.

Utah health officials are urging people to take it seriously and protect themselves from E. coli.

"People need to understand it's not just a mild case of diarrhea. There's risk of serious illness, and they shouldn't have a cavalier attitude. There are severe manifestations with this disease," she said.

The investigation so far indicates at least some of the E. coli cases "appear to be strongly associated" with ready-to-eat packaged spinach, Mottice said. The link is strong enough that FDA officials first said people should cook bagged spinach thoroughly. By Thursday night, they were saying not to eat it at all "at this time."

E. coli outbreaks that may be linked to the prepackaged spinach are in Utah, Oregon, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Michigan, Idaho, Indiana and Connecticut.

Enterohemorrhagic E. coli outbreaks linked to pre-washed or ready-to eat spinach or lettuce, sold under various brand names, are nothing new, attorney William Marler, of Seattle's Marler Clark LLP, told the Deseret Morning News.

Marler, who has sued on behalf of consumers sickened by E. coli contamination, cited examples: October 2003, when 13 California retirement center residents got sick and two died after eating E. coli-contaminated spinach; or September 2003 when nearly 40 patrons of a California restaurant chain got sick after eating salads made with pre-bagged lettuce; or July 2002, when more than 50 young women got sick at a dance camp after eating pre-washed lettuce. Several of them were hospitalized, and one suffered permanent kidney damage.

Last September, health authorities investigating pre-washed lettuce as a source of E. coli outbreaks in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oregon estimated as many as 244,866 bags of potentially contaminated lettuce made it to store shelves, Marler said. Many people were critically injured.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest said that, of 225 food-poisoning outbreaks from 1990 to 1998, nearly 20 percent were linked to fresh fruits, vegetables or salads.

To avoid E. coli, the FDA said that all bagged spinach must at the very least be thoroughly cooked. The same goes for any ground beef. All fruits and vegetables should be washed "except spinach, because you're going to cook that," Mottice said.

Never drink recreational water such as that in streams, ditches or canals.

Don't drink irrigation water.

Hands should also be "thoroughly washed" after any interaction with farm animals.

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