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SALINAS, Calif. -- Federal agents from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intervened over the weekend to help investigate the highly publicized E. coli outbreak linked to tainted spinach grown and packed here.
Federal health officials linked the tainted prepackaged greens, which were distributed throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico, to Natural Selection Foods LLC. As of Sunday, September 17, the outbreak had been blamed for killing a 77-year-old Wisconsin woman, and making 102 people sick in 19 states.
San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Natural Selection Foods - best known for its Earthbound Farm brand - on Friday issued a voluntarily recall of all of its products containing spinach, with "Best if Used by Dates" of Aug. 17 through Oct. 1, following reports of illnesses in multiple states nationwide.
In a statement, the company said, "We have been working closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) to try to understand the scope and locate the source of any contamination. The health and safety of those who consume our products is our top priority today and every day.''
Company officials said over the weekend that no E. coli bacteria had been found in Natural Selection plants or in salads the company had distributed.
Over the weekend, state and federal inspectors continued a traceback investigation throughout Salinas Valley fields and processing plants to identify how and where the deadly bacteria entered the food supply. It was still unclear at presstime whether the outbreak concerned organically or conventionally farmed spinach.
The outbreak cast a collective pall over the domestic fresh produce industry, which was thrust into the spotlight in coast-to-coast media reports starting late Thursday and extending over the weekend, as grocers worked to allay consumer concerns that all fresh spinach products, and mixes that contain spinach, had been removed from produce departments and salad bars.
Retailers around the country further urged consumers to discard all prepackaged spinach products via local media outlets and in-store point-of-purchase signage.
Kathy Means, spokesperson for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, on Friday afternoon told Progressive Grocer the trade association had been "flooded with calls from suppliers, processors, retailers, and the media. It's a tragic situation and everyone is very concerned about it."
PMA's president, Bryan Silbermann said in a statement that the association and "all who understand the produce industry's commitment to providing consumers with safe and healthy food choices, are saddened by the news of the recent foodborne illness outbreak. Simply stated, our goal is to achieve zero illnesses, so one person sickened from our products is one too many."
Noting PMA's objective to protect the health and safety of the public, Silbermann pledged that PMA, together with the United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA) and the Western Growers Association (WGA), will continue working with the FDA in an effort to discover the source and ensure the industry takes the necessary steps to protect consumers.
Tom Stenzel, the chief executive of the newly formed UFPA, appeared on several national news feeds over the weekend to affirm the industry's foremost goals of working with the authorities as the investigation continued into the multi state E. coli outbreak.
"The fresh produce industry is extremely concerned that anyone may have become ill from consuming fresh spinach," said Stenzel, noting, "The illnesses and death that have been reported are a tragedy."
CDC officials said Sunday they launched an Atlanta-based emergency operations center to help state health agencies with E. coli testing. Epidemiologists are helping test spinach samples and stool samples of those who have been infected.
The Food and Drug Administration continued to warn consumers not to eat fresh spinach or fresh spinach-containing products until further notice.
While the full economic impact of the E.coli outbreak remains to be seen, farmers are more concerned right now about public safety, industry representatives have stressed. "The economic impact could be millions," said Tim Chelling, v.p. of the Western Growers Association. "But right now everyone's first priority is the human factor."
Marler Clark, a Seattle-based firm that specializes in E. coli cases, said it was planning to add Natural Selection Foods as a defendant to lawsuits stemming from the outbreak. Late last week -- within hours of the breaking news linking E. coli to bagged spinach -- the firm sued Dole Food Co. on behalf of several people who became ill after eating bagged baby spinach.
Dole is one of nearly 30 labels using fresh-cut spinach processed by Natural Selection Foods.