Calif. company recalls spinach packages
E. coli outbreak kills one, sickens nearly 100 in US
Jennifer Cadotte inspected spinach Friday at Life Source Natural Foods in Salem, Ore. The store later pulled its bagged spinach after the outbreak. (Lori Cain/ Statesman Journal via Associated Press)
WASHINGTON -- Spinach was absent from grocery store shelves, restaurant menus, and family iceboxes yesterday after an outbreak of E. coli led a California company to recall packages of the leafy green from across North America.
Federal health officials linked prepackaged spinach distributed by Natural Selection Foods LLC throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico to the outbreak, which has killed one person and sickened nearly 100 in 19 states. No foreign cases are known.
Food and Drug Administration officials said the sickened reported that they had eaten Natural Selection Foods spinach before getting sick.
The officials stressed that the bacteria have not been isolated in products sold by the holding company, which is based in San Juan Bautista, Calif., and known for Earthbound Farm and other brands. As the investigation continues, other brands may be implicated.
Two Maine residents who fell ill last month suffered from the same strain of E. coli bacterium found in bagged spinach, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. No cases have been detected in Massachusetts.
But Maine is the second New England state in which it turned up, in addition to several in Connecticut. Stop & Shop and Shaw's pulled all bagged spinach from their aisles. Whole Foods Markets temporarily removed fresh spinach and fresh salad mixes containing spinach.
In recent years, prepackaged spinach has soared in popularity, particularly among women over 40, according to the Agriculture Department. Each year, consumers buy more than 500 million pounds of raw spinach, which is packaged in cellophane bags and clamshell boxes.
Earthbound Farm, which says it pioneered the retail market in prewashed, bagged salads in 1986, said its spinach and other products are in 74 percent of US grocery stores.
It also sells spinach to restaurants and other establishments that serve food. The National Restaurant Association said members were pulling spinach from their menus.
The recall drew praise from Tom Stenzel, who serves as president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh Produce Association.
``The FDA investigation and the voluntary action taken by Natural Selection Foods LLC help narrow concern about any continuing risk, and begins to ensure that product that may be potentially contaminated is removed completely from the food supply," Stenzel said in a statement.
Meanwhile, a Seattle law firm said it planned to add Natural Selection Foods tomorrow to federal lawsuits filed in Wisconsin and Oregon that named other spinach producers.
Not all strains of E. coli cause illness. Laboratory analysis has confirmed that a strain called O157:H7 is responsible for the current outbreak. The spinach could have been contaminated in the field or during processing, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Boiling contaminated spinach can kill the bacteria, but washing will not .
Wisconsin accounted for 32 illnesses, about one-third of the cases, including the lone death, a 77-year-old woman who died of kidney failure. The victim's son identified her as Marion Graff, 77, of Manitowoc, who died of kidney failure Sept. 7.
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 CDC.
In most outbreaks, the number of confirmed reports of illness is usually only the ``tip of the iceberg," the agency said.
Globe correspondent Emma Stickgold contributed to this report.