FBI searches 2 spinach packing companies for evidence in nationwide E. coli outbreak

Wednesday, October 4th 2006, 9:30 pm
By: News On 6

SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. (AP) _ The FBI searched two produce companies Wednesday for evidence of a crime in the nationwide E. coli outbreak that killed one person and sickened at least 192 others.

Agents from the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration used warrants to search a Natural Selection Foods LLC plant in San Juan Bautista and a Growers Express plant in Salinas to determine whether they followed food safety procedures.

``We are investigating allegations that certain spinach growers and distributors may not have taken all necessary or appropriate steps to ensure that their spinach was safe before they were placed into interstate commerce,'' U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan said in a statement.

Federal officials do not think anyone at the plants deliberately contaminated spinach with the virulent bacteria and said the searches do not mean there is an ongoing or new threat to public health.

The searches were the first indication that authorities suspect a crime may have been committed in the outbreak that killed a Wisconsin woman, sickened people in 26 states and prompted the FDA to issue a two-week consumer warning on fresh spinach last month.

FBI spokesman Joe Schadler said authorities were investigating possible felony violations of federal environmental laws. He would not disclose what agents sought or seized at the two plants.

Natural Selection, which packages spinach sold under 34 brand names and supplies spinach to other food processors, was implicated in the E. coli outbreak after 11 bags of Dole brand baby spinach tested positive for the same bacteria strain found in people who fell ill after eating the leafy greens.

Natural Selection CEO Charles Sweat said agents requested paperwork, including documents already provided to the FDA and the California Department of Health Services. In a statement, he defended his plant's cleanliness.

``We have believed from the outset that our facilities were not the source of the contamination,'' Sweat said. ``We have been concerned that the contamination may have originated in the fields where the product is grown.''

Growers Express grows and packs produce, including Farm Day packaged spinach. Until Wednesday, the company had not been named in the investigation of how the tainted spinach ended up in bags and on store shelves.

A representative for Growers Express did not immediately return a call seeking comment. Workers at the plant would not answer questions about the FBI search.

Since E. coli is found in animal and human feces, state and federal inspectors trying to pinpoint the source of contamination have focused on irrigation water, fertilization methods, worker hygiene and the proximity of fields to livestock.

Federal and state officials previously had said they had narrowed their search for the E. coli's source to nine farms in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties that grew spinach for Natural Selection Foods.

The federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act provides criminal penalties for companies involved in the production or sale of ``adulterated foods,'' said Andy Weisbecker, a Seattle lawyer whose firm is representing dozens of people who got sick eating spinach in the last two months.

Companies can be convicted if they are shown to have been negligent in preventing tainted foods from entering the market, even if they were unaware of the contamination, Weisbecker said.

The FDA and California officials have ordered fruit and vegetable growers to develop ways to minimize the risk of another outbreak in all leafy greens.

Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, declined to comment on Wednesday's searches because of the ongoing investigation.