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F.ood & H.ealth : B.iological A.gents Last Updated: Nov 12th, 2006 - 20:38:00

FDA warns of outbreak and not to eat bag spinach
Sep 15, 2006, 12:39

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WASHINGTON - 15 Sept. -- Consumers should avoid eating fresh bagged spinach after an outbreak of E. coli in eight states killed one person and sickened at least 49, federal health officials announced Thursday night.

Dr. David Acheson of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the F.D.A., was cited as saying that state and federal health officials have used genetic screening tools to confirm that all 50 people sickened by the disease suffered from the same bacteria.

But health officials still have no idea which food manufacturer may be to blame. Dr. Acheson was cited as saying the first case was reported on Aug. 23 and the most recent on Sept. 3, adding, "It's increasing by the day. We may be at the peak, we may not. We're giving preliminary data here."

Most of those affected have been women. Although this strain of E. coli commonly affects children, many patients have been older than 20, Dr. Acheson said.

Health officials are by no means certain that bagged spinach is the culprit. When patients have a confirmed case of the disease, health officials ask the victims many questions about what they ate over the previous weeks. Bagged fresh spinach is the only food that patients so far have had in common, Dr. Acheson said.

Asked if consumers should also avoid bagged salads, Dr. Acheson answered somewhat tentatively, saying, "At this point, there is nothing to implicate bagged salad."

Dr. Acheson advised consumers to avoid bagged spinach altogether, although he noted that thorough cooking killed the bacteria.

Michigan Department of Community Health spokesman T.J. Bucholz was quoted as saying, "We're telling people if they have bagged produce and they feel like it's a risk, throw it out. If they feel like they have to eat it, wash it first in warm water." (why warm water? -- dp)

Amy Philpott, a spokeswoman for the United Fresh Produce Association, was cited as saying that it's possible the cause of the outbreak won't be known for some time, even after its source is determined, adding, "Our industry is very concerned. We're taking this very seriously."

Salem, Oregon, resident Gwyn Wellborn, 27, developed HUS and was hospitalized for several days in intensive care at Salem Hospital, then at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. She now is home recovering.

"I just feel terrible for anybody else who is going through this," Wellborn said.

Wellborn's illness was traced to a package of Dole baby spinach, according to her family and her attorney. The law firm of Marler Clark in Seattle, which has a practice dedicated to representing victims of food poisoning, has filed a personal injury lawsuit on Wellborn's behalf in U.S. District Court in Portland.

The FDA's alert sent some Salem-area grocery stores scrambling to pull bags of spinach off the shelves.

Roth's removed and boxed up all of its spinach by Fresh Express, the only brand it carries. Roth's is offering a refund to anyone who wants to return Fresh Express spinach purchased at any of its locations.

"We've pulled even some pizzas that had fresh spinach on them," said Michael Roth, the president of the Roth's chain. "We've pulled anything with fresh spinach."

Late Thursday, Roundy's Supermarkets Inc. in Wisconsin said it was voluntarily removing all prepackaged fresh spinach and packaged salads containing fresh spinach.

The recall will affect all Roundy's stores, including Pick 'n Save, Copps and Metro Market in Wisconsin and Rainbow in Minnesota, even though that state had not yet been among those listed as being affected by the outbreak, the company said in a statement.

Bill Marler of the Seattle-based law firm Marler Clark said he is representing four cases of victims of the latest outbreak, including a Milwaukee family whose two children were hospitalized with the syndrome. In that case, a 6-year-old boy was released from the hospital Thursday. His sister remains hospitalized, Marler said.

Officials are not certain where the spinach involved in the outbreak came from. California, the No. 1 producer in the nation's $200-million fresh spinach industry, supplies 74% of the country's crop.

The announcement of the outbreak comes just weeks after federal and state officials launched a wide-ranging evaluation of growing and processing practices in the Salinas Valley, focusing on leafy greens.

That evaluation stems from eight previous outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 nationally since 1995, all linked to lettuce and spinach grown in the area, known as the "Salad Bowl of the World." Those outbreaks sickened at least 217 people around the nation and killed two at a retirement home in Northern California.

As a result of the latest outbreak, "I believe that consumer confidence will be shaken at least in the short term," said Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at UC Davis and a national expert on consumer attitudes toward food. "But I'm aware that the produce industry, particularly in California and throughout the nation, is working really hard to address all possible sources of contamination."

Amy Philpott, a spokeswoman for the United Fresh Produce Assn., based in Washington, D.C., wsa quoted as saying, "We want consumers to take the advice of the authorities, absolutely. We are working with the federal and state authorities to try to determine what the source is and exactly what we're dealing with."

The article is originally published by

New York Times/AP/ Statesman-Journal (Oregon)/ Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (Wisconsin)/ Los Angeles Times/ Washington Post

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