Federal officials Friday lifted their blanket warning against eating fresh spinach, narrowing it to spinach from three California counties linked to an E. coli outbreak that has spread to 25 states.
Food and Drug Administration officials changed their recommendation after determining that tainted spinach that has sickened 166 people nationwide and caused at least one death came from processing plants and farms in San Benito, Santa Clara and Monterey counties.
“At this stage of the investigation, we know spinach grown in the rest of the U.S. and in California is not implicated in the current outbreak, therefore the public can be confident that spinach grown in nonimplicated areas can be consumed,” said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
He said that state and federal investigators were working to further narrow the area from which the contaminated spinach came.
California growers produce about three-quarters of the nation’s spinach, and about 60 percent of it comes from the three-county region that has been implicated in the outbreak. Other spinach-producing counties are Ventura, Imperial and Riverside.
Outside the state, Arizona, Texas and New Jersey have sizable spinach farms, said Tim Chelling, spokesman for the Western Growers Association.
He said the FDA’s announcement was welcome news to the beleaguered spinach industry. He noted that winter crops would soon be harvested in Imperial County and Yuma, Ariz.
“We want to act responsibly and err on the side of caution, but a blanket warning is extreme,” Chelling said.
Mark Roh, acting director for the FDA’s Pacific Region, said Friday that a team of 20 investigators had inspected 10 fields and three processing plants in the three counties since Sept. 14, when the outbreak was first reported.
He declined to say what they had found so far. He said they were looking at sanitation practices, housekeeping methods, the cleanliness of equipment, what raw materials were being used, evidence of animal activity or pests, and many other factors.
No specific source of contamination has been identified publicly, but many of those who got sick had eaten bagged spinach produced by Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista.