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Health officials say: Avoid fresh spinach
Kentucky Correspondent

FRANKFORT, Ky. — As the number of reported U.S. cases of E. coli rises, public health officials recommend consumers refrain from using any kind of fresh spinach product.

Escherichia coli O157:H7 is one of hundreds of strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli and is potentially deadly causing bloody diarrhea, dehydration and kidney failure. It is spread from contaminated meat, vegetables, unpasteurized milk and juice, and swimming in or drinking sewage-contaminated water.

This current outbreak is blamed on contaminated fresh spinach. Although most strains of the disease are harmless and live in the intestines of healthy humans and animals, this particular strain produces a toxin and can cause severe illness with symptoms occurring within 2-8 days of consumption and lasting 3-10 days.

“E. coli infection is a serious threat to public health. As an added safety measure, we advise that consumers avoid all brands of fresh spinach and products that contain spinach for the time being,” said Dr. William Hacker, acting undersecretary for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and public health commissioner. “Additionally, physicians should make sure to report all E. coli cases to the local health department.”

To date, eight cases have been reported in Kentucky, the latest involving a woman in Oldham County who received outpatient treatment at an area hospital. Of the seven previously reported cases, only an Oldham County woman remains hospitalized. The cases have been reported from Oldham County, two from McCracken County and one each from Hopkins, Jefferson and Kenton counties.

The Food and Drug Administration reports at least 175 cases in 25 states including 27 cases of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome (HUS), a severe, life-threatening complication of E. coli that can cause kidney failure. Of those cases, 92 have resulted in hospitalization with one death reported in Wisconsin.

While the investigation focuses on the packaged spinach industry, the focal point has been on Natural Selection Foods in California. The FDA has determined the spinach implicated in the outbreak was grown in three counties: Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara. More than half of U.S. spinach production is in California.

“Spinach grown in the rest of the United States has not been implicated in the current E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. The public can be confident that spinach grown in the non-implicated areas can be consumed,” the FDA reported. “Other produce grown in these counties is not implicated in this outbreak. Processed spinach (e.g., frozen and canned spinach) is also not implicated in this outbreak. Industry is working to get spinach from areas not implicated in the current E. coli O157:H7 outbreak back on the market. Investigators from FDA, (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the state of California are working to narrow the area implicated in the current E. coli O157:H7 outbreak further.”

California Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Horton issued on Sept. 15 a voluntary recall of fresh, prepackaged spinach products made by Natural Selection Foods.

“While the source of the contamination is still under investigation, Natural Selection Foods is voluntarily recalling its fresh, prepackaged spinach products as a precaution,” he said. “Consumers should not eat any fresh, prepackaged spinach until the source of the contamination that is causing this outbreak is determined.”

The products being recalled include the following brands with used-by dates of Aug. 17 through Oct. 1: Dole, Natural Selection Foods, Pride of San Juan, Earthbound Farm, Bellissima, Rave Spinach, Emeril, Sysco, O Organic, Fresh Point, River Ranch, Superior, Nature’s Basket, Pro-Mark, Compliments, Trader Joe’s, Ready Pac, Jansal Valley, Cheney Brothers, Coastline, D’Arrigo Brothers, Green Harvest, Mann, Mills Family Farm, Pro*Act, Premium Fresh, Snoboy, The Farmer’s Market, Tanimura & Antle, President’s Choice, Cross Valley and Riverside Farms.

These products include spinach and any salad with spinach in a blend, both retail and foodservice products. Non-spinach items are not part of the recall.

“This is a proactive step, taken as a precaution, to protect the health and safety of our customers,” Natural Selection Foods said in a release. “While neither the FDA nor the (California Department of Health Services) have yet determined the source of the E. coli problem, we believe that recalling all spinach product packed in our facilities is the right thing to do. The FDA has said that they are looking at the entire industry and we will continue to do our part in their investigation.”

The FDA also reported that two more firms had initiated voluntary recalls: Triple B Corp., doing business as S.T. Produce of Seattle, Wash., and Pacific Coast Fruit Co. of Portland, Ore.

The CDC reported that, among ill persons who provided the date when their illnesses began, 88 percent became ill between Aug. 19 and Sept. 5. The peak time when illnesses began was Aug. 30 to Sept. 1 – 35 percent of persons with the outbreak strain became ill on one of those three days.

The FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said, “the fact that illnesses are so dispersed suggests that the contamination likely happened early in the distribution chain. The investigation into the possible source and cause of contamination is ongoing, including on the farm and in processing plants.”

An estimated 73,000 U.S. cases of E. coli and 61 deaths occur each year.

This farm news was published in the Sept. 27, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.