Marcio Jose Sanchez  /  AP
A field of spinach grows across the street from the Natural Selection Foods plant in San Juan Bautista, Calif. on Wednesday, Oct. 4.
updated 10/5/2006 9:57:15 AM ET 2006-10-05T13:57:15

The ongoing probe into the source of a nationwide E. coli outbreak linked to tainted spinach turned into a criminal investigation as federal agents raided two Salinas Valley produce companies.

Agents from the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration’s criminal investigations office executed search warrants Wednesday at the Natural Selection Foods LLC plant in San Juan Bautista and Growers Express in Salinas to see if they violated food safety and environmental laws.

“We are investigating allegations that certain spinach growers and distributors may not have taken all necessary or appropriate steps to ensure that their spinach was safe before they were placed into interstate commerce,” U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan said.

Federal officials do not think anyone at the plants deliberately contaminated spinach with the virulent bacteria, which has killed one and sickened more than 190 others in 26 states, and the searches do not mean there is an ongoing or new threat to public health.

“There is no indication there was any tampering of willful contamination or anything like that,” said FBI spokesman Joe Schadler.

But the searches were the first indication that authorities believe a crime may have been committed related to the outbreak that prompted a two-week FDA warning not to eat fresh spinach.

The federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act provides criminal penalties for companies involved in the production or sale of “adulterated foods,” said Andy Weisbecker, a Seattle lawyer whose firm is representing dozens of people who got sick eating spinach in the last two months.

To be convicted under the act, companies do not need to have known their products were contaminated, merely negligent in their duties to prevent tainted foods from entering the market, Weisbecker said.

“If someone out there is pumping out hundreds of pounds of pork with trichinosis in it, you don’t have to know you are doing that to be found potentially criminally negligent,” he said.

Contamination in the fields
An executive for Natural Selection, which the FDA previously identified as having produced bags of spinach implicated in the outbreak, stood by his plant’s cleanliness and pointed the finger at growers.

“We continue to believe that the source of the contamination was in the fields from which we buy our spinach,” Chief Executive Officer Charles Sweat said in a statement.

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A representative for Growers Express did not return calls seeking comment. Workers there would not answer questions about the FBI agents who remained on-site all day.

Federal and state officials previously had said they had narrowed their search for the E. coli’s source to nine farms in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties that grew spinach for Natural Selection Foods.

Since E. coli is found in animal and human feces, state and federal inspectors have focused on irrigation water, fertilization methods, worker hygiene and the proximity of fields to livestock.

The FBI would not say what agents sought or seized at the two plants, but said they gathered enough preliminary evidence to get a judge to sign the warrants.

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