msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/18/2006 11:13:19 AM ET 2006-09-18T15:13:19

The company whose fresh spinach was linked to an E. coli outbreak that’s sickened at least 109 people said its organic products had been cleared of suspicion, while health officials continued working to pinpoint the bacteria source.

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Natural Selection Foods LLC, the country’s largest grower of organic produce, said late Sunday that manufacturing codes from packages of spinach that infected patients turned over to health officials all were from non-organic spinach. Natural Selection packages both organic and conventionally grown spinach in separate areas at its San Juan Bautista plant.

The company, however, did not immediately lift any recalls of 34 brands. Those brands include the company’s own labels and those of other companies that had contracts with Natural Selection to produce or package its spinach.

Meanwhile, Salinas-based River Ranch Fresh Foods added to its recall spring mixes containing spinach sold under the labels Hy-Vee, Fresh N’ Easy and Farmers Market, FDA officials said. All contain spinach purchased from Natural Selection, they said.

'Significant outbreak'
The Food and Drug Administration and California Department of Health Services planned Monday to work toward tracing the infected greens to individual farms. The inquiry will review irrigation methods, harvest conditions and other practices at farms possibly involved.

The spinach could have been contaminated in the field or during processing. About 74 percent of the fresh-market spinach grown in the U.S. comes from California, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

There is no indication that the outbreak was deliberate, said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer with the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

The FDA continued to warn consumers not to eat fresh spinach or products containing fresh spinach until further notice.

“This is unquestionably a significant outbreak in terms of E. coli,” Acheson said.

E. coli cases linked to tainted spinach have been reported in 19 states, with Wisconsin reporting the most cases, including the death of a 77-year-old woman.

Other states reporting cases were California, Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming, according to the CDC.

Seven new cases reported Sunday were in states with previous illnesses, Acheson said.

In Ohio, state health officials said they were investigating the death of a 23-month-old girl who was sickened by E. coli to determine whether the case was related to the outbreak. The girl’s mother said she often buys bagged spinach.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Sunday they’ve started 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 infected people, center spokeswoman Lola Russell said.

The center is helping when state health agencies can’t perform the tests or when a second opinion is needed, Russell said.

Washing won't help
Natural Selection recalled its packaged spinach throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico as a precaution after federal health officials said some of those hospitalized reported eating brands of prepackaged spinach distributed by the company.

However, some restaurants and retailers may be taking spinach out of bags before selling it, so consumers shouldn’t buy it at all, the FDA said.

Boiling contaminated spinach can kill the bacteria, but washing won’t eliminate it, the CDC warned.

Federal officials stressed that the bacteria had not been isolated in products sold by Natural Selection. As the investigation continues, other brands may be implicated, officials said.

Natural Selection was founded in 1984 by Drew and Myra Goodman. Within two years, its best-known brand, Earthbound Farm, began shipping pre-washed, packaged salad fixings, and the company’s “spring mix” became a mainstay of restaurants and supermarkets.

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