From: Maggie Fox, Reuters
Published September 22, 2006 12:00 AM

E. Coli Outbreak Mystifies Investigators

WASHINGTON — U.S. food safety regulators said Thursday they were still mystified by an outbreak of E. coli that has killed one person, sickened 157 and forced all fresh spinach to be pulled from store shelves.


The investigation centers on nine farms in three California counties, and the outbreak may signal a need for tighter regulation -- especially in California's crop-rich Salinas Valley, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration official said Thursday.


"The goal here from the FDA point of view is to ensure the food supply is safe. If that takes a further regulation, then so be it," Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the agency's Food Safety and Applied Nutrition branch, told reporters.


"There is going to be a need to examine the system -- what's working, what's not working. At this point I wouldn't want to rule anything in or anything out."


California health officials, the FDA and an investigator from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are inspecting nine farms in California's Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties, Acheson said.


The affected spinach appears to come from that area, but people have been sickened in 23 states.


Investigators found the implicated E. coli strain in a single bag of spinach from one victim's refrigerator in New Mexico. "The information that we got from the lot number from the positive bag from New Mexico allowed us to specifically identify nine farms that were linked to that lot," Acheson said. Several more bags are being tested.


Until they can find the source of the outbreak, the FDA has cautioned U.S. consumers to avoid all raw and fresh spinach. Canned and frozen spinach was safe, Acheson said.


BACK ON SHELVES


Acheson said presumably fresh spinach from elsewhere was safe but the agency needed to come up with clear language to guide consumers so they would be confident buying fresh spinach again. "We are not quite certain how long that will take," he said.


The contamination could have come from water, manure, a breakdown in the packaging plant, or improperly refrigerated spinach, Acheson said. The farms are the likely source of the problem.


"We are looking at drainage, we are looking at irrigation, we are looking at the topography of land," Acheson said.


If good agricultural practices are not being followed, then perhaps there is a need to tighten up the voluntary aspects, Acheson said.


It was the 10th outbreak of E. coli to be traced to the Salinas Valley area, Acheson said.


"Obviously we all know this area of the country produces a lot of fresh produce. But having said that, it does raise a lot of questions about what are the practices in that area," he said.


Acheson noted that close to 120,000 tons of spinach were produced every year in Monterey County with no significant outbreaks.


E. coli bacteria are found naturally in the guts of many animals, including people. One strain, called O157:H7, can cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration that usually improves without any drugs.


It can also cause hemolytic uremic syndrome, a life-threatening condition that can require blood transfusions and kidney dialysis.


The CDC estimates that E. coli 0157:H7 infects 73,000 people each year and kills 61 in the United States. Foodborne illnesses in general, including Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli, make 76 million Americans sick, put 300,000 into the hospital and kill 5,000 each year.


Proper cooking kills all the bacteria.


Source: Reuters


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