E. Coli Probe Focuses on 9 Calif. Farms

Luke Girling, produce manager  of a market in Oceanside, Calif., examines the store's spinach supply. The E. coli outbreak has sickened 131 people.
Luke Girling, produce manager of a market in Oceanside, Calif., examines the store's spinach supply. The E. coli outbreak has sickened 131 people. (By Michael J. Kacmarcik -- Associated Press)
By Annys Shin and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Investigators searched nine California farms for evidence of spinach-borne E. coli yesterday, going into the fields for the first time, as the number of confirmed illnesses rose by 17 to 131.

A team of about a dozen investigators from the Food and Drug Administration and the state of California fanned out to farms in Monterey County's Salinas Valley, according to Kevin Reilly, deputy director of the California Department of Health Services. The farms grew spinach for Natural Selection Foods LLC and River Ranch Fresh Foods LLC, which have recalled all of their fresh spinach, officials said.

Federal officials focused on those nine farms after records provided by Natural Selection and River Ranch indicated a link to bags of spinach eaten by those who became ill, David W. Acheson, an FDA food safety official, said.

The number of farms inspected is likely to rise in the coming days, state and federal officials said. In 2005, more than 10,000 acres of spinach was grown in the Salinas Valley.

Investigators are combing through "hundreds of different documentation related to small farms, large farms and multiple shipments," to identify other potentially contaminated fields and where tainted greens were sent, Reilly said.

Investigators in the field are looking at all aspects of agricultural practices, such as water supply, irrigation systems, and drainage, state and federal officials said. They're also looking at how the product is harvested and any animal activity that might carry E. coli onto the field.

FDA officials have not isolated E. coli in any of the spinach samples they have collected from consumers, processing plants and farms. But there are more samples to be tested.

"If the first round isn't positive, we will keep looking," Acheson said. "I'm hopeful we will find a cause, but there's a realistic possibility we won't."

Acheson said the outbreak appeared particularly virulent, though that could change as more cases are reported. Of the 131 cases, 66 people have been hospitalized, 20 have experienced kidney failure, and one person has died -- a higher than expected proportion.

FDA officials had no update on the death of a toddler in Ohio that was being investigated for links to the outbreak.

Some victims have retained lawyers for possible lawsuits. William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in food poisoning cases, said he is representing 30 victims of the outbreak, 11 of whom have developed kidney failure.

A central challenge to the investigation is a lack of understanding by scientists, farmers and government regulators of how E. coli contaminates produce, FDA officials and food safety researchers said.

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