WASHINGTON – A California natural foods company was linked Friday to a nationwide E. coli outbreak that has killed one person and sickened nearly 100 others. Supermarkets across the country pulled spinach from shelves, and consumers tossed out the leafy green.
Food and Drug Administration officials said that they had received reports of illness in 19 states, including Washington and Idaho.
The outbreak was traced to Natural Selection Foods, based in San Juan Bautista, Calif., and the company has voluntarily recalled products containing spinach.
FDA officials stressed that the bacteria had not been isolated in products sold by Natural Selection Foods but that the link was established by patient accounts of what they had eaten before becoming ill.
An investigation was continuing.
“It is possible that the recall and the information will extend beyond Natural Selection Foods and involve other brands and other companies, at other dates,” said Dr. David Acheson, the chief medical officer with the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Natural Selection Foods LLC said in a statement that it was cooperating with federal and state health officials to identify the source of the contamination and had stopped shipping all fresh spinach products.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Safeway Inc., Supervalu Inc. and other major grocery chains stopped selling spinach, removing it from shelves and salad bars.
At the Coeur d’Alene Albertsons, $4.99 bags of “Fresh Express” baby spinach had been pulled from the produce aisle. The action was taken “out of an abundance of caution,” said Donna Eggers, Albertson’s communications manager in Boise. Albertson’s is owned by Supervalu Inc., which has suspended sales of packaged spinach in all its grocery store chains, Eggers said.
At Coeur d’Alene’s Fred Meyer, a notice of the consumer alert was taped above an empty spot in the refrigerator case. “Please check your refrigerator for any bagged or bulk spinach,” the notice read. “Do not eat it. Either destroy it or return it to the point of purchase.”
State health officials received the first reports of illness Aug. 25, and the FDA was informed on Wednesday, Acheson said.
The FDA warned people nationwide not to eat the spinach. Washing won’t get rid of the tenacious bug, though thorough cooking can kill it.
The bug has sickened at least 94 people across the nation, the CDC said. The agency added that 29 people have been hospitalized, 14 of them with kidney failure.
Wisconsin accounted for 29 illnesses, about one-third of the cases, including the lone death.
Other states reporting cases were: California, Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Idaho, three people were sickened, but only one was hospitalized, said Ross Mason, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Welfare. That person has since been released, and all the victims are recovering. The illnesses occurred in Ada, Canyon and Twin Falls counties.
In Washington, health officials said the outbreak of E. coli had sickened a woman from Longview, who was tested in Oregon.
A Salem woman who says eating bagged spinach caused a serious case of E. coli infection has filed a federal lawsuit against California-based Dole Food Co. seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages.
Gwyn Wellborn bought the spinach on or about Aug. 21 and ate it over several days, according to her lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland.
A week later, it says, she started getting worsening bouts of diarrhea and her husband took her to Salem Hospital. She was discharged but later readmitted for six days before being sent to Oregon Health and Science University in Portland after potentially lethal complications arose, according to the lawsuit.
She had at least four transfusions and other treatment, was discharged Sept. 8 and is slowly recovering at home, the lawsuit says.
More than half the nation’s 500 million-pound spinach crop is grown in California’s Monterey County, according to the Agriculture Department.
“We’re trying to get to the bottom of this and figure out what happened. Everybody is terribly concerned,” said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation.