California produce growers and processors scrambled late this week to draft new food-safety measures in the wake of a deadly outbreak of E. coli blamed on tainted spinach. The contaminated produce has sickened more than 150 people in 23 states and is blamed for one death in Wisconsin. Officials in Idaho and Maryland also are investigating deaths of people believed to have eaten fresh spinach. While the exact source of the bacteria is still undetermined, investigators did name the company they believe is responsible.
Earlier this week the Centers for Disease Control traced the tainted spinach to "Natural Selection Foods" a producer and processor in California's Central Valley. "Natural Selection" is the nation's leading supplier of packaged organic salads and produces a wide range of products that are sold under a variety of brands including "Earthbound Farms." The CDC made the connection after some of those hospitalized reported eating brands of spinach processed by the company.
Because FDA officials have not been able to pinpoint the exact source of the contamination, they are warning consumers not to eat fresh spinach regardless of the brand. Grocers and restaurants have responded by pulling spinach from their shelves and menus.
According to the FDA, there have been 19 other food-poisoning outbreaks linked to lettuce and spinach since 1995, and last November, officials called on California growers to increase the safety of their products.
Robert Brackett, FDA: "I think fast enough progress has not been made. The big part is that we're going to need a lot of research to do this but in fact we're going to have to take a much more aggressive look at protecting the public."
The FDA believes the contamination was the result of polluted irrigation or flood waters. Test results from produce packing plants aren't due back for a week or more.
According to the California Farm Bureau Federation, nearly 75 percent of the fresh market spinach grown in the U.S. comes from California. USDA estimates the farm value of the U.S. spinach crop at a little more than $210 million annually.
Given the crippling effect an outbreak can have on sales, growers are anxious to learn the results of the tests.