E. Coli Outbreak Source Located

Joseph Mercurio president and CEO of Mercurio Produce Distributors looks over bags of spinach at his wholesale company in Columbus, Ohio Friday, Sept. 15, 2006. The produce has been quarantined in the warehouse.
AP/Columbus Dispatch, Eric Albrecht
An outbreak of E. coli has been linked to a California spinach processor, but government investigators are looking into other producers as well.

"We're clearly evolving and it is very important to keep an open mind whether there are other products potentially implicated," said Dr. David Acheson, the chief medical officer with the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Natural Selection Foods LLC was linked to the E. coli outbreak that has killed one person and sickened nearly 100 others. Twenty-nine people have been hospitalized, 14 of them with kidney failure. FDA officials said they had received reports of illness in 19 states.

Supermarkets across the country have pulled spinach from shelves, and consumers have tossed out the leafy green.

The officials stressed that the bacteria had not been isolated in products sold by Natural Selection Foods, a holding company based in San Juan Bautista, Calif., known for Earthbound Farm and other brands. However, multiple patients named spinach brands sold by the company in interviews with health officials, Acheson said. Other brands may yet be implicated.

Meanwhile, Natural Selection Foods voluntarily recalled its products containing spinach and is cooperating with federal and state health officials to identify the source of the contamination. Its products are sold as Rave Spinach, Natural Selection Foods, Dole, Earthbound Farm, Trader Joe's, Ready Pac and Green Harvest, among other brand names.

"We are very, very upset about this," Natural Selection Foods spokeswoman Samantha Cabaluna said Friday night. "What we do is produce food that we want to be healthy and safe for consumers, so this is a tragedy for us."

The company said consumers could call 800-690-3200 for a refund or replacement coupons for tossed-out spinach products.

State health officials received the first reports of illness Aug. 25, and the FDA was informed Wednesday, Acheson said.

The FDA warned people nationwide not to eat the spinach. Washing won't get rid of the tenacious bug, although thorough cooking can kill it.