SALINAS, Calif. — Local spinach farmers and processors expressed relief upon learning that the search for the source of a deadly E. coli outbreak has been linked to a nearby cattle ranch, but health officials cautioned that their investigation was far from over.
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Inspectors confirmed Thursday that the same bacteria strain that killed three people and sickened nearly 200 nationwide was found at a Salinas Valley cattle ranch within a mile of spinach fields.
Officials still can’t be sure if the E. coli found in cow manure contaminated the fields, but called the match an important finding.
“We do not have a smoking cow at this point,” said Dr. Kevin Reilly, deputy director of the Prevention Services Division of the California Department of Health Services.
Meanwhile, the company that processed and packaged the tainted spinach viewed the finding as vindication after repeatedly asserting its factories are clean.
“This definitely reinforces our belief that the source was environmental,” said Samantha Cabaluna, a spokeswoman for Natural Selection Foods LLC.
Other Salinas Valley farmers and processors also saw the link to a single ranch as a significant step toward restoring public confidence in a region known as the “Salad Bowl to the World.”
“This is exactly what we hoped, that they could narrow their focus and come back with conclusions, conclusions on how the product got contaminated so we can learn as much as we can from this particular situation and enhance or improve or change our practices accordingly,” said Joseph Pezzini, vice president of operations for Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville.
The strain of pathogenic E. coli O157:H7 was found in three cattle fecal samples collected at the ranch, one of four under investigation, officials said. It matched the strain found in sick patients and in bags of recalled spinach.
Investigators continue to look at agricultural runoff, irrigation water and the hygiene of farm workers as possible sources of the bacteria.
“It’s our expectation that no farm should feel they are off the hook,” said Dr. Robert Brackett, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Investigators still do not know how the feces could have contaminated the spinach implicated in the bacterial outbreak. They also do not know if the ranch used manure from the cattle to fertilize its fields. Nor is there evidence that livestock entered the spinach fields on the ranch. However, wild pigs roamed the property, they said.
“There’s lots of wildlife and lots of potential for breakdown in the fencing,” Reilly said.
The recent outbreak of E. coli in spinach was the 20th such outbreak in lettuce or spinach since 1995. The finding marks the first time that investigators have identified a possible source for an E. coli outbreak in the region, Reilly said.
Despite progress in the investigation, the spinach scare is likely to permanently change the area’s fresh produce industry, said Woody Johnson, vice president of Growers Express LLC, which packages greens under brands such as Green Giant Fresh.
“No matter how isolated the strain, this has raised the bar for everyone in the industry in terms of inspection and prevention,” he said. “We need to do whatever we have to do to restore consumers’ confidence.”
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