Search Narrows For Source Of E. Coli

By Michael S. Rosenwald and Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 21, 2006

Health officials in New Mexico positively identified a deadly strain of E. coli in a bag of spinach yesterday, providing a crucial clue that investigators say can be used to trace the source of an outbreak that has sickened 146 people.

Until now, the evidence implicating spinach has been circumstantial. By confirming the presence of the germ in a bag of spinach eaten by one victim, investigators can begin tracing it back to a farm in California, a step toward clearing the sale of fresh spinach from other parts of the country, David W. Acheson, a top FDA food safety expert, said.

"Yesterday, we narrowed it to California," he said. "Today, we narrowed it down to three counties. We're hoping to narrow it down to a field and . . . to a spinach leaf."

The E. coli outbreak, which was reported a week ago, has led to the leafy vegetable's banishment from restaurants and dinner tables across the country and is threatening the spinach industry with severe damage. Losses are estimated at up to $100 million if the crisis lasts just a month, and the industry has been hoping for a quick resolution in order to stem long-term damage.

Nutritionists and food-policy experts said public fears about spinach could extend to other popular produce, such as bagged salads. Even though there have been 20 E. coli outbreaks from spinach or lettuce since 1995, this one has attracted the most attention because it has the most victims, with one death, another death suspected and the number of illnesses climbing by 15 yesterday. Two more states, Arizona and Colorado, reported cases yesterday.

The uncertainty has virtually shut down the fresh spinach industry.

"This is going to kill the spinach industry for who knows how long," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. "The idea that salad greens have become a source of E. coli is very shocking, and it means we have a real problem in the food system. This is very serious."

Samuel Fromartz, the author of a recent book about the natural foods business in California, said: "It's not just the spinach industry. I think it's a big blemish for fresh produce production out of the Salinas Valley."

Federal officials yesterday narrowed the source of the outbreak to three counties, Monterey, Santa Clara and San Benito, in and around the greater Salinas Valley. The germ was found in a bag of Dole baby spinach, marked best used by Aug. 30. Acheson said the spinach was processed by Natural Selection Foods LLC, saying the code on the bag fit with information provided by the company, which has previously been linked to the outbreak.

Yesterday, the FDA said a New Jersey company, RLB Food Distributors, was recalling a number of products containing spinach possibly supplied by Natural Selection. The brands -- including Balducci's and FreshPro -- were sold on the East Coast, including in Maryland, Virginia and the District. Those with an "Enjoy Thru" date of 9/20/06 or earlier should be returned to the store where they were purchased.

And officials reiterated that no one should consume fresh spinach until they lift their warning.

The Salinas Valley is a dominant area for spinach production in California, which produces roughly 74 percent of the country's fresh spinach, thanks in large part to Natural Selection's Earthbound Farm and its innovative bagged produce. California recorded $258 million in spinach sales last year. In Monterey County, sales of spinach reached $188.2 million last year, up from $56 million in 1995.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has credited the growth of spinach sales to the convenience of buying it fresh in bags, which became popular in the 1990s.

The California region's spinach problems, amplified by the sheer size of its market share, have not only dented the state's more than $30 billion-a-year agricultural business, but are also causing concern in secondary spinach and produce markets across the country -- from Arizona to Colorado to New Jersey and even Maryland, where about 40 growers covering 1,200 acres are two weeks from harvesting late-summer plantings.

FDA officials have said they would like to quickly lift the cloud of concern over farmers not tied to the outbreak.

Kate Wagner, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the state's farmers were "cautiously optimistic" that they will be able to harvest their spinach.

In California, some growers have talked about "disking" -- plowing under ripe crops that cannot be harvested. "I don't know of anybody disking yet, but that's the decision we're going to have to face," said Joe Pezzini, chairman of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California.

Spinach is grown in 80-inch beds and harvested mechanically, at a cost of about $33,500 an acre. Farmers with hundreds of acres, who may lose more than one crop before the end of the growing season in November, stand to suffer big losses, according to Richard F. Smith, a farm adviser in the University of California Cooperative Extension program in Monterey County. Last year, 17,000 acres in the county were planted with spinach.

Growers aren't the only ones in the food chain feeling the pinch.

Mark Allen, president of the International Food Service Distributors Association, said, "From an economic standpoint, it's substantial because distributors have to pull back not just any tainted product, but anything that has fresh spinach in it." He couldn't say how much of a hit distributors would take but said larger companies could lose millions of dollars if they are not reimbursed by their suppliers.

The longer FDA officials take to figure out the problem, the worse the damage will be to the spinach industry. Not being able to pinpoint the cause would be an even worse situation.

"If you don't know what the problem is and you can't solve it, then you can't reassure the public that what they are eating is safe," said Nestle, the NYU professor.

As a leafy green vegetable, which nutritionists would like Americans to eat more of, spinach is known as being a good source of fiber and vitamin A, as well as iron, vitamin C and folic acid. "It's a pretty power-packed vegetable compared with iceberg lettuce," said Reed Mangels, nutrition adviser for the Vegetarian Resource Group.

There are other sources of leafy vegetables that provide similar nutritional value: kale, collard greens, mustard greens, arugula. Some of those have already become a replacement for dishes containing spinach in restaurants. Also, frozen and canned spinach are not included in the warning.

But while spinach is certainly taking a beating, nobody is saying the vegetable is going away forever. "There are no concerns about healthiness, that it's not a good food," Mangels said.

"Spinach isn't poison," said Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis. "Yes, there has been a problem. But there are outbreaks in hamburgers that make the news, and we haven't quit eating hamburgers."

Staff writers Sonya Geis and Chris Kirkham contributed to this report.

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