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N.C. Stores Pull Spinach From Shelves In Wake Of E. coli Outbreak

Posted September 17, 2006

— Grocery stores across North Carolina removed thousands of bags of spinach from shelves Friday after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration linked tainted leaves to a deadly multi-state E. coli outbreak.

No E. coli cases related to the spinach have been reported in North Carolina, said spokeswoman Carol Schriber of the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The original outbreak was reported Thursday in eight states, and FDA officials said Friday that they had received reports of illness in about 20 states. The bacterium has killed one person and sickened nearly 100 others.

The outbreak was traced to Natural Selection Foods, based in San Juan Bautista, Calif., and the company has voluntarily recalled products containing spinach. Their products are sold as Rave Spinach, Natural Selection Foods, Dole, Earthbound Farm, Trader Joe's, Ready Pac, Green Harvest, among other brand names.

FDA officials stressed that the bacteria had not been isolated in products sold by Natural Selection Foods. The link was established by patient accounts of what they had eaten before becoming ill.

"It is possible that the recall and the information will extend beyond Natural Selection Foods and involve other brands and other companies, at other dates," said Dr. David Acheson, the chief medical officer with the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Experts said produce could also be contaminated by animals tracking feces through crop fields, or by contaminated irrigation systems.

State food and drug officials have been in frequent contact this week with the FDA. They said Friday that they're prepared to do their own testing.

"We're going to go out, see if it's sold in North Carolina," said North Carolina Food and Drug Protection Director Joe Reardon. "We'll collect samples ourselves and see if we can identify if there's a problem."

Food Lion removed all of its bagged spinach from its 1,200 stores in 11 states in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic, said Jeff Lowrance, a spokesman for the Salisbury-based chain.

Lowe's Foods, based in Winston-Salem, went further. It also removed bulk spinach from store shelves early Friday, said Barbara Saulpaugh, the grocery chain's vice president of marketing and merchandising. The store has about 100 stores in North Carolina and a handful in Virginia and South Carolina.

"We have pulled everything off our shelves until we get any further information from the FDA," she said. "One of the things that is disconcerting is that this is one of the fastest-growing parts of our bagged salad category. It's a little frustrating because we'd like to sell the product."

Fresh Market Inc. has also stopped selling spinach. The Greensboro-based chain has 59 stores in the Southeast and Midwest, including Indiana, one of the states where E. coli cases have been reported.

Ingles Markets Inc. of Asheville has pulled bagged spinach and mixed salads containing spinach from its shelves, according to chief financial officer Ron Freeman. The company has 197 stores in six states.

Harris Teeter markets, based in Matthews, said Thursday that it was taking all bagged salad products that contained spinach off its shelves until it received clarifying information from the FDA.

Health experts said the E. coli danger extends to all fresh produce, and they recommended washing all fruits and vegetables, including packaged produced labeled as pre-washed or ready-to-eat.

State officials said North Carolina has some of the United States' most rigorous testing standards for food. Each week, scientists pull a number of different items from supermarkets across the state and test them for bacteria that could sicken consumers, including E. coli.

The outbreak was first reported Thursday. States reporting cases were: California, Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wisconsin accounted for 29 illnesses, about one-third of the cases, including the lone death.


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