Posted on September 22, 2006

California growers promise new procedures

Investigators still searching for E. coli source

Amid growing governmental pressure and public concern about an E. coli outbreak caused by tainted spinach, California farmers promised new procedures for growing, handling and shipping their produce on Thursday, even as health officials in Utah said the death of a 2-year-old boy there on may be linked to the bacterium.

The boy, Kyle Algood of Chubbuck, Idaho, died from hemolytic-uremic syndrome, a type of kidney failure often linked to E.coli, said Ross Mason, a spokesman for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

“This child also apparently had consumed some raw spinach in some kind of spinach smoothie that someone made for him,” Mr. Mason said. “That combination leads us to believe he very likely died from E. coli.” Tests for a confirmed cause of death were not complete.

The new crop procedures were announced just hours after federal and state health authorities met with hundreds of concerned and occasionally angry farmers crammed into a Farm Bureau office here to offer their help in ending a crisis that is estimated by trade officials to have already cost the spinach industry $50 million.

Federal authorities said on Wednesday that they had narrowed the focus of their investigation to nine farms in three California counties — Monterey, Santa Clara and San Benito, all on the Central Coast — but spinach remained off the shelves nationwide.

But whether the warning would be lifted soon enough to save what was left of the Salinas Valley crop, or to plant spinach in counties farther south, remained to be seen.

Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer for the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration, said there was no timetable for lifting the warning, saying it could happen “maybe tomorrow, maybe over the weekend, maybe next week.”

Later Thursday, at a news conference here, representatives for two trade groups said the proposed guidelines represented a “war on food-borne illnesses” as well as opportunity to avoid new rules from lawmakers.

“Obviously the industry and most of the regulators would like to see us handle it,” said Thomas Nassif, the president of Western Growers, which represents 3,000 farmers and shippers in California and Arizona, who produce about half of the fresh produce in the country. “Sometimes, when you get into legislation, which can be mandatory, it ends up being a political solution rather than a scientific or health-related solution, and that’s what we’d like to avoid.”

Mr. Nassif said the guidelines would cover what he called the “the three W’s” of possible contamination: water, work force and wildlife. Among the changes being considered are advanced testing of irrigation water and field soil, more sanitary mechanical harvesters, and even labeling of where specific spinach products were grown.

The push for new voluntary guidelines came as federal authorities announced that the outbreak had sickened 157 people, of whom 83 had to be hospitalized, including 27 with serious kidney problems.

Speculation continuted about how this virulent strain of E. coli, bacteria in the intestines of many warm-blooded animals, might have entered the food chain.

Among possible culprits, food safety experts say, are irrigation water or groundwater that could have been polluted by runoff from dairy farms or cattle ranches, or spread to vegetable fields during floods. But Dr. Acheson said it was “way too early” to focus on water as a culprit.

Suspicions about Central Coast farms have been raised before, with eight E. coli outbreaks over the last decade linked to lettuce grown in the Salinas Valley, which is sometimes called “the salad bowl of the world.”

Mr. Nassif said he and other trade representatives were aware of the past problems and would be flying to Washington in the next few days to try to complete approval of the guidelines. He said he had been told that the F.D.A. had finished inspections of three or four farms and had yet to find “anything significant.”

“If the source is never found,’’ Mr. Nassif said, “it won’t change what we’re going to do. We have to assume that certain aspects of our operations are possible sources. And we have to attack them.”

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