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Deadly E. coli outbreak traced to bagged spinach spreads to ninth state

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal health officials worked Friday to find the source of a multistate E. coli outbreak and warned consumers that even washing the suspect spinach won't kill the sometimes-deadly bacteria.

One person died and dozens of others were sickened in the 10-state outbreak, linked by Food and Drug Administration officials to bagged spinach.

``We need to strive to do even better so even one life is not lost,'' said Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, FDA's acting commissioner.

The FDA warned people not to eat bagged spinach and said washing it wouldn't solve the problem because the bacteria are too tightly attached.

``If you wash it, it is not going to get rid of it,'' said Robert Brackett, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition.

The original outbreak was reported Thursday in eight states. On Friday, Ohio and Kentucky brought the tally to 10, as additional reports trickled in to state and federal health officials. Ohio health officials reported seven cases _ one serious _ while Kentucky officials knew of a single case involving a 17-year-old girl being treated in neighboring Tennessee.

Meanwhile, supermarkets around the country began pulling packaged spinach from store shelves.

``We pulled everything that we have spinach in,'' said Dan Brettelle, manager of a Piggly Wiggly store in Columbia, S.C.

Officials believes the spinach may have been grown in California, and federal and state health officials were there trying to pinpoint the source of the contamination.

E. coli is commonly present in animal manure.

Brackett said the use of manure as a fertilizer for produce typically consumed raw, such as spinach, is not in keeping with good agricultural practices. ``It is something we don't want to see,'' he told a food policy conference.

Ten states were reporting a total of at least 58 cases of E. coli, according to the latest tally Friday.

The death occurred in Wisconsin, where 20 people were reported ill, 11 of them in Milwaukee. The outbreak has sickened others _ 10 of them seriously _ in Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon and Utah. In California, Pennsylvania and Washington, state health officials were investigating possible cases.

The outbreak has affected a mix of ages, but most of the cases have involved women, Acheson said. Further information on the person who died wasn't available.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Wisconsin health officials alerted the FDA about the outbreak at midweek. Preliminary analysis suggested the same strain is responsible for the outbreak in all 10 states. Not all strains of the bacteria cause illness.

The warning applied to consumers nationwide because of uncertainty over the origin of the tainted spinach and how widely it was distributed. Health officials did not know of a link to a specific growing region, grower, brand or supplier.

``Typically we would try to narrow it down as focused as we could,'' Brackett said in an interview. ``The fact that it was distributed all over the country, the fact that people are getting seriously ill from this, warranted us to have an abundance of caution and just to say 'OK, stop now until we figure out exactly what's going on.'''

Brackett noted that most of the spinach crop at this time of the year comes from California. A special effort is under way in the Salinas Valley of California, a major leafy-vegetable growing region, to look for any possible source of contamination there.

Amy Philpott, a spokeswoman for the United Fresh Produce Association, said that it's possible the cause of the outbreak won't be known for some time, even after its source is determined.

``Our industry is very concerned,'' she said. ``We're taking this very seriously.''

Reports of infections have been growing by the day, Acheson said. ``We may be at the peak, we may not be,'' he said.

E. coli causes diarrhea, often with bloody stools. Most healthy adults can recover completely within a week, although some people _ including the very young and old _ can develop a form of kidney failure that often leads to death.

Anyone who has gotten sick after eating raw packaged spinach should contact a doctor, officials said.

Other bagged vegetables, including prepackaged salads, apparently are not affected. In general, however, washing all bagged vegetables is recommended. Thorough cooking kills the bacterium.

``We're telling people if they have bagged produce and they feel like it's a risk, throw it out,'' Michigan Department of Community Health spokesman T.J. Bucholz said. ``If they feel like they have to eat it, wash it first in warm water.''

E. coli lives in the intestines of cattle and other animals and typically is linked to contamination by fecal material. The disease-linked strain of the bacterium causes an estimated 73,000 cases of infection, including 61 deaths, each year in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sources of the bacterium include uncooked produce, raw milk, unpasteurized juice, contaminated water and meat, especially undercooked or raw hamburger, the agency says on its Web site.
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