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Scare gives spinach heave-ho

An E. coli outbreak in 20 states prompts bay area restaurants and supermarkets to get rid of it. The FDA says California was source.

Published September 16, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Cafe Alma's spinach house salad with roasted pine nuts and raisins is temporarily suspended from the menu.

Crispers' baby spinach salad is off-limits, too.

And don't expect to find the leafy green on the shelves of your neighborhood Publix.

Faced with a new multistate E. coli outbreak linked to fresh, bagged spinach from California, grocers and restaurateurs across the nation were busy Friday pulling Popeye's favorite iron-rich power food from their shelves and menus.

"Ours comes in fresh," Cafe Alma co-owner Dwight Watkins said Friday, "but we've eliminated it altogether to make sure. It's better to be safe than sorry."

Federal health officials issued sober warnings to salad fans Friday while trying to pinpoint the source of the bacterial outbreak that killed one person and sickened almost 100 more.

Triple-washed, cello-packed bagged spinach is suspected to be the culprit, Food and Drug Administration officials later said.

The FDA issued a blanket warning, telling people not to eat spinach, period. Washing the greens won't help, though thorough cooking can kill the bug.

In response, supermarkets across the country purged shelves. That meant disposal of spinach-wrapped deli feta rolls, spring mix bagged salad or deli-prepared spinach salad.

"Customers have been very understanding about it," said Raymond Bagwell, manager of Crispers restaurant on S Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. "Most of them don't want to get sick."

The store pulled four cases of spring mix bagged salad and two cases of spinach - about $160 worth.

By Friday, the outbreak had grown to include 96 reported illnesses in at least 20 states: California, Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wisconsin accounted for 29 illnesses, about one-third of the cases, including the lone death.

Though Florida hadn't made the list, local food industry leaders weren't risking it Friday.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Safeway Inc., SuperValu Inc. and other major grocery chains stopped selling spinach.

Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said all the fresh bagged spinach products and other products containing spinach had been pulled.

At Wild Oats in Tampa, night produce manager Kip Howard said day workers had plucked 203 bags from the grocery shelves. Greens were quarantined in the back of the store late Friday pending more information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "We're just taking extra precautions to protect our customers," Howard said.

Federal health officials said late Friday they had traced the outbreak to a California company, which agreed to a recall. They said they had issued the nationwide consumer alert without waiting to identify the source.

The FDA said the outbreak had been linked to products distributed by Natural Selection Foods, based in San Juan Bautista, Calif. "It is possible that the recall and the information will extend beyond Natural Selection Foods and involve other brands and other companies, at other dates," said Dr. David Acheson, the chief medical officer with the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Initial suspicions had focused on California's Monterey County. Farmers there grow more than half the nation's 500-million-pound spinach crop, according to the Agriculture Department.

"We're trying to get to the bottom of this and figure out what happened. Everybody is terribly concerned," said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Even before the latest outbreak, a joint state and federal effort has been under way in the California county to find and eliminate any possible sources of E. coli contamination.

E. coli lives in the intestines of cattle and other animals, and typically is spread through contamination by fecal material. Robert Brackett of the FDA said the use of manure as a fertilizer for produce typically consumed raw, such as spinach, is not in keeping with good agricultural practices.

Doctors began seeing the first of the E. coli poisoning cases in late August. The CDC and Wisconsin health officials alerted the FDA about the outbreak at midweek.

Not all strains of E. coli trigger illness. E. coli O157:H7, the strain in the current outbreak, was first recognized as a cause of illness in 1982. That strain is linked to an estimated 73,000 cases of infection, including about 60 deaths, each year in the United States, according to the CDC.

When ingested, the bug can cause diarrhea, often with bloody stools. Most healthy adults can recover completely within a week, although some people - including the very young and old - can develop a form of kidney failure that often leads to death.

Sources of the bacterium include uncooked produce, raw milk, unpasteurized juice, contaminated water and meat, especially undercooked or raw hamburger.

Anyone who has gotten sick after eating raw packaged spinach should contact a doctor, officials said. Other bagged vegetables, including prepackaged salads, apparently are not affected.

What happened?

The Food and Drug Administration issued an alert on an outbreak of E. coli, a bacterium that can cause fever, diarrhea and even death.


Can't the spinach be washed to make it safe?

No. Health officials warned that washing the spinach isn't enough, though thorough cooking could kill the bug.

What about canned or frozen spinach?

That shouldn't be a problem. It has been cooked.

Have any illnesses been reported in Florida?


What about other leafy vegetables?

The FDA singled out spinach. No other vegetables are affected.

What should I do with bags of spinach I just bought?

Return it to the store where you purchased it, or toss it.

[Last modified September 17, 2006, 13:25:55]

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