updated 9/21/2006 7:46:36 PM ET 2006-09-21T23:46:36

California produce growers and processors worked to draw up new food-safety measures Thursday as government investigators trying to pinpoint the source of the deadly E. coli outbreak narrowed their search to three counties.

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Trade groups hoped to deliver improved guidelines to the Food and Drug Administration within a week but were unsure how long it would take win the agency’s approval.

“We have people who hope this will be resolved soon so they can salvage something of this season,” said Tom Massif, president of Western Growers, an industry group representing about 3,000 fruit and vegetable farmers in California and other states. “Once we go to Washington and iron out those guidelines, we’ll be much closer to a date.”

Federal officials have set the new food-safety measures as a prerequisite for lifting a week-old consumer warning on fresh spinach.

Massif said it was too early to provide details, but that the measures would likely focus on better water and soil testing and beefed-up sanitation standards for field workers and packaging plants.

The guidelines will be part of a proposal for protecting produce from the bacteria that have killed one person and sickened at least 157 others across the country since last month.

“Generally, everything will be reviewed,” said Tim Chelling, spokesman for Western Growers. “Health and human safety are our primary concerns.”

The industry’s response to the national E. coli outbreak traced to bagged spinach from central California would build on existing efforts to protect produce from contamination rather than entail a complete overhaul, Massif said.

Investigators found a contaminated bag of Dole baby spinach Wednesday at the New Mexico home of a person who fell ill. The spinach was packaged by Natural Selection Foods, a San Juan Bautista company that packages salad greens sold under dozens of brands.

After analyzing the strain of E. coli bacteria in the bag, investigators said they believe it probably originated in at least one of nine farms and several processing plants in California’s Monterey, San Benito or Santa Clara counties.

E. coli is often spread by human or animal waste. Inspectors have been looking at the possibility that the germ was spread by contaminated irrigation water, workers relieving themselves in the fields, or some other means.

But Chelling said the effectiveness of any security measures taken by farmers and processors hinges on pinpointing the source of the outbreak.

“Absent that, you’ll be applying a shotgun series of solutions that may or may not help,” Chelling said.

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