Utah family joins suit against spinach producer

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 19 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

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A Murray mother and her young son have joined what is expected to be a growing number of people who are suing a California spinach producer blamed for a national E. coli outbreak that has caused spinach products to vanish from store shelves.
According to a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court against Natural Selection Foods LLC, Sheila Leafty claims she bought packages of spinach on several occasions last month. During that time, she fed her son, Brayden, spinach salads between Aug. 22 and Aug. 27. Leafty claims her son began suffering bouts of diarrhea on Aug. 29, and eventually he was hospitalized.
Brayden's illness is just one of an estimated 15 E. coli cases reported in Utah since the spinach-related outbreak was discovered. The FDA continues to recommend that consumers not eat any fresh, uncooked spinach.
Media trucks surround spinach fields at the Natural Selection Foods LLC plant on Monday in California's Salinas Valley. (Richard Green, Associated Press) Media trucks surround spinach fields at the Natural Selection Foods LLC plant on Monday in California's Salinas Valley. (Richard Green, Associated Press)
Dr. David Acheson of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said the number of people who have fallen ill from E. coli nationwide is 114, reflecting several new cases reported Monday. In addition to the 15 Utah cases, Wisconsin reported 32 cases and the one death attributed to the bacteria, Ohio 10, Indiana 8 and New York 7. Seventeen other states reported from one to six cases.
Federal officials on Monday began to test farms in California in the search for the source of the E. coli outbreak. While investigators have already conducted tests at the first processing company implicated in the outbreak, the source of the bacteria may be on farms in the Salinas Valley region of California, officials of the FDA said in a press conference Monday evening.
On Sunday, the FDA said that a second company in California has been implicated in the E. coli outbreak. The newly identified company, River Ranch Fresh Foods, obtained salad that included spinach from the first company implicated, Natural Selection Foods of San Juan Bautista, Calif. The spinach that passed through River Ranch was sold under the brand names Farmers Market, Hy-Vee, and Fresh and Easy.
The investigation is proceeding in what amounts to a rearview mirror, with state and local health officials receiving reports of illness, asking people what they ate and searching for the source. To identify the new company, officials examined Natural Selection's records and found it had supplied River Ranch.
Federal health officials told California farmers to improve produce safety in a pointed warning letter last November, nearly a year before the multi-state E. coli outbreak linked to spinach. In fact, the current food-poisoning episode is the 20th since 1995 linked to spinach or lettuce, FDA officials said.
While state and federal officials have traced the current outbreak to a California company's fresh spinach, they haven't pinpointed the sources of the bacteria. The regulatory agency does not consider the contamination deliberate.
"There is always a question in the back of our mind whether it may have been a deliberate attack on the food supply. Currently, there is nothing in the epidemiology to consider this deliberate," Acheson said.
That leaves a broad range of other possible sources, including contaminated irrigation water that's been a problem in California's Salinas Valley. About 74 percent of the fresh-market spinach grown in the United States comes from California, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Nineteen other food-poisoning outbreaks since 1995 have been linked to lettuce and spinach, according to the FDA. At least eight were traced to produce grown in the Salinas Valley. The outbreaks involved more than 400 cases of sickness and two deaths.
In 2004 and again in 2005, the FDA's top food safety official warned California farmers they needed to do more to increase the safety of the fresh leafy greens they grow. "In light of continuing outbreaks, it is clear that more needs to be done," the FDA's Robert Brackett wrote in a Nov. 4, 2005, letter.
Suggested actions included discarding any produce that comes into contact with floodwaters. Rivers and creeks in the Salinas watershed are known to be periodically contaminated with E. coli, Brackett said.
Various produce growers' associations worked with the FDA to publish new guidelines for the safe handling of spinach and other leafy greens in April after the agency reiterated its concerns.
The spokesman for a group representing 3,000 growers and shippers in California and Arizona said the new guidelines were not directly in response to any particular incident.
"The basic standard for the industry is zero tolerance," said Tim Chelling, of Western Growers.
But one food safety analyst said the Salinas Valley was developing a reputation for food safety problems connected to leafy greens.
"Even the biggest companies have become vulnerable," said Trevor Suslow, a microbial food safety researcher at the University of California, Davis.
And with the food-safety risk comes increased vulnerability to lawsuits. In the case of Brayden Leafty in Utah, over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medications were not effective, and on the evening of Sept. 1, Brayden's stools became "grossly bloody," according to his mother's lawsuit.
The following day, Brayden was rushed to Cottonwood Hospital, where he received intravenous hydration, pain and nausea medication, the lawsuit said. The boy was taken to Primary Children's Hospital when his condition worsened on Sept. 3.
Leafty told the Deseret Morning News that her son is recovering after a week of continual vomiting. She said her son had to be taken back to Primary Children's several times for intravenous re-hydration. "He has just lost so much weight," she said.
But as of Saturday, her son regained his appetite and returned to school Monday morning, she said.
Leafty said the whole ordeal was quite a scare for her family. A leftover bag of spinach was turned over to the county health department last Friday, she said.
"As the grower and producer, Natural Selection Foods should have been consumers' first line of defense against E. coli entering the food supply," said attorney Bill Marler. "Instead, this company allowed contaminated produce to enter the marketplace and caused one of the largest fresh-produce-related outbreaks in recent history."
Natural Selection Foods defended its safety history. "Quality and food safety have been the centerpiece of our business, and we pride ourselves on the high standards we have set and the great care we take in handling of all the product that comes through our facilities," said Charles Sweat, chief operating officer of Natural Selection Foods, in a written statement. "With over 20 years of experience packing fresh produce, we have built a track record that is unmatched by others in the industry."
Natural Selection Foods has yet to respond to the lawsuits filed against it after the spinach recall.
Marler is also representing the parents of two Wisconsin children who were also believed to have been sickened by contaminated spinach. According to the Wisconsin lawsuit, both children came down with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a potentially deadly condition associated with E. coli infections. As of last Sunday, the daughter remained hospitalized.
An Oregon woman has also sued. According to her lawsuit, she ate spinach for lunch several times during the week of Aug. 21. She reports she was hospitalized at Salem Hospital for six days and required at least four blood transfusions and other medical procedures.
In all of the federal lawsuits, the plaintiffs have asked for unspecified damages, including compensation for pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, medical expenses, travel expenses, emotional distress and attorney fees.

Contributing: New York Times News Service

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