FDA lifts ban on most fresh spinach after E. coli outbreak

Saturday, September 30, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lifted its two-week-old consumer warning on most fresh spinach Friday, revising the alert to say it now covers only specific brands packaged on certain dates.

The warning now applies only to spinach recalled earlier this month by Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista and four companies that it supplied, said Kevin Reilly, deputy director of prevention services for the California health department.

A week ago, the FDA had said it was safe to eat spinach grown anywhere outside of three Salinas Valley counties, and some stores began restocking. Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said Friday that only spinach that had already been recalled shouldn't be eaten.

Other spinach "is as safe as it was before this event," Acheson said.

The outbreak of the E. coli bacterium killed at least one person and sickened dozens of others in several states.

Natural Selection's recall covered 34 brands it packaged bearing "Best if Used By" dates of Aug. 17 through Oct. 1 -- this Sunday. Reilly said the recall and the expiration dates make it likely the tainted spinach that led to a nationwide E. coli outbreak has mostly worked its way out of the food supply.

Natural Selection and nine farms that supplied the company with spinach have been the focus of inspectors searching for the source of the E. coli outbreak that has sickened 187 people in 26 states, with one confirmed death.

Nine packages of Dole baby spinach, one of the brands Natural Selection bagged, have tested positive for E. coli.

The FDA action came on the same day California growers and produce processors presented preliminary food safety guidelines the agency set as a prerequisite for removing its spinach warning after the E. coli outbreak.

But state health officials told reporters Friday afternoon that the FDA's decision to tell consumers they could resume eating all but a very limited supply of spinach was unrelated to the industry blueprint submitted earlier in the day.

"Our recommendation is that the public should not consume the spinach specifically cited in the recall," Reilly said. "As I've said pretty persistently, there are some concerns about systemic contamination in the Salinas Valley, and it's really critical the farms, the ranchers, implement good agricultural practices routinely and on every farm, every day."

Even as it reassured consumers that it's OK to eat spinach, the FDA once again told California farmers Friday to get serious about fighting E. coli in their fields.

The recent nationwide outbreak is the 20th connected to leafy green vegetables -- lettuce or spinach -- since 1995, half of them linked to farms in central California's Salinas Valley. Investigators don't yet know how the greens linked to the current outbreak became tainted, and may never know for sure, Acheson said.

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