California Spinach Growers May Face Criminal Charges

The federal government has opened an investigation of California spinach growers, claiming they may have failed to have sufficient safety measures in place to prevent the recent outbreak of E. coli.

A Department of Justice release from October 4 notes: “The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California announced that agents of the FBI and FDA Office of Criminal Investigations executed two search warrants today on Growers Express in Salinas, California, and Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Batista, California, in connection with the September 2006 outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 that the FDA has traced to spinach grown in the Salinas area.” While the companies are not accused of deliberate contamination, they may be liable for negligence or malpractice.

“I want to reassure the public that there is no indication in this investigation that leaf spinach was deliberately or intentionally contaminated,” said U.S. Attorney Kevin V. Ryan in the DOJ release. “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.”

According to the New York Times, investigators have also had contact with Primus Labs in Santa Maria, California, a company responsible for testing <"">E. Coli levels for growers. In their report, the Times spoke with Juan Muniz, the Primus operations manager, who pointed out that part of the problem is the lack of authoritative guidelines on what constitutes unacceptable E. coli levels.

“I can eat something where my immune system is not affected, but my son or my father–one or two colonies could affect them,” Mr. Muniz told the Times. Muniz also said that responsibility for farm safety largely falls on a “voluntary code of good practices,” rather than universally accepted guidelines.

According to the CDC, as of Friday, October 6, “199 persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported to CDC from 26 states…. Three deaths in confirmed cases have been associated with the outbreak.”

The CDC has warned that “consumers should not eat, retailers should not sell, and restaurants should not serve spinach implicated in the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Products implicated in the outbreak include fresh spinach and spinach-containing products from brands processed by Natural Selection Foods.” They recommend that consumers avoid spinach packages with a use-by date on or before October 1, 2006. They also note that the bacteria strain can be “killed by cooking at 160° Fahrenheit for 15 seconds.”

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