Calif. Farm Firm Linked To Tainted Spinach

By Michael S. Rosenwald and Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 16, 2006

Federal health officials last night linked a deadly E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach products to a California farm company that sells organic produce in 74 percent of the country's grocery stores.

Natural Selection Foods, widely known for its Earthbound Farm brand, yesterday recalled all its fresh spinach products, along with packaged salads.

The company also sells products under the Trader Joe's and Dole brands, among dozens of others.

Many of the people who have become ill reported eating Natural Selection products, but the Food and Drug Administration has not yet found the bacterium in the company's products. The outbreak has sickened nearly 100 people in 20 states, including one potential case in Virginia.

FDA officials warned consumers not to eat packaged spinach, and last night it extended the warning to packaged salad products that contain spinach, as well as spinach at restaurant salad bars. The strain of Escherichia coli that is making people sick is particularly virulent. The bacteria can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea, and some people can develop kidney failure.

The warnings came on a day when grocery stores and restaurant chains scrambled to pull bagged spinach off their shelves and menus. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. removed its bagged spinach from stores around the country. So did Giant Food, Food Lion and Safeway. Cosi, a popular lunch chain, took baby spinach out of its hand-tossed salad. The Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain decided last night to remove all spinach from its salad bars and entree salads.

At Whole Foods Market, which cleared its stock Thursday after initial FDA warnings, signs were posted explaining to customers why bagged spinach was not on shelves.

"We pulled all our spinach in the store, not only the bagged stuff but any of the fresh stuff and any products that had fresh spinach in them," said Sarah Kenney, director of marketing for the company's mid-Atlantic region. The stores communicated with each other via e-mail. "We get questions like: 'What about the spinach in this dip?' The response is: 'Just pull it.' "

Spinach is a nearly $300 million-a-year industry and has been growing with the popularity of packaged salads. While sales of canned spinach have fallen 14 percent, to $34 million, from 2002 to 2005, sales of packaged spinach have risen. Sales rose nearly 36 percent from 2002 to 2005, to $158 million, according to AC Nielsen.

"I love spinach," said Ophelia Miranda, a District resident, who couldn't find it yesterday at a Whole Foods Market. "I'll stay away from it for a while."

Health officials made the link to Natural Selection Foods by interviewing patients, asking them what they had eaten in the week before they became ill, and then looking in the answers for a common thread. Once spinach was implicated, epidemiologists queried the people about where they shopped and what brands they had bought. That led to the California company.

A spokeswoman for Earthbound Farm released a statement saying the company was assisting federal health authorities in their investigation, including providing full access to its facilities and offering products for testing.

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