The bag of tainted Dole baby spinach is the “smoking gun” that has allowed investigators to zero in on three counties in California’s greater Salinas Valley, said Dr. Mark Horton, the state public health officer. Authorities also were checking processing plants, Horton said.
Officials said consumers still shouldn’t eat bagged spinach, even as they closed in on the source of the bacteria as likely somewhere in Monterey, San Benito or Santa Clara counties.
California produces 74 percent of the nation’s fresh spinach crop. The Salinas Valley accounts for roughly three-quarters of the state’s share.
However, CBS News has learned in fact that investigators almost never find an E. coli smoking gun.
After the last six major lettuce and spinach outbreaks — outbreaks that caused three deaths, hundreds of illnesses and at least 26 cases of kidney damage — not once was the source identified, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews.
Last fall, the FDA accused the produce industry of sitting on its hands in a scathing memo. The FDA says industry claims that “‘We cannot take action until we know the cause’ are unacceptable.”
The bag of fresh spinach that tested positive for E. coli was found in New Mexico, and other bags recovered elsewhere in the country also were being tested.
“It’s certainly premature to say only this bag is going to test positive,” said Dr. David Acheson of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “There are others in the works.”
New Mexico Department of Health officials confirmed the tainted bag of spinach was found after a person who ate some of the leafy greens became one of 146 people in 23 states sickened by the outbreak. One person has died.
The spinach tested positive for the same strain of E. coli linked to the outbreak, Acheson said. Dole is one of the brands of spinach recalled Friday by Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Bautista, Calif., about 45 miles south of San Jose.
The tainted greens — conventionally grown spinach and not organic — came from one of the farms that supplies spinach to Natural Selection, said Samantha Cabaluna, spokeswoman for Natural Selection.
She said independent scientists have declared Natural Selection’s facilities are clean.
“All along, we have been concerned that the source for this outbreak could be environmental, emanating from the field,” Cabaluna said.
Seattle lawyer Bill Marler, who has represented dozens of clients in lawsuits connected to contaminated bagged leafy greens, said he’s representing more than 30 clients from 12 states over the current E. coli outbreak. He said he reached a settlement for his clients with the company in five previous cases, but could not reveal its terms.
Based on past experience, Marler said he suspects bacteria-tainted irrigation or flood water is behind the current outbreak.