- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — After months of testing, public health officials said yesterday they can’t conclusively link the E. coli-related death of an elderly Maryland resident to the bacteria strain found in packaged fresh spinach that killed three persons and sickened hundreds more in a national outbreak last year.

An attorney representing the family of the 86-year-old Hagerstown woman said the laboratory evidence is still strong enough to sustain their lawsuit claiming June E. Dunning died from eating Dole fresh baby spinach tainted with E. coli.

“It doesn’t mean we can’t prove the case; it just makes it a little bit more difficult,” said William Marler, the Seattle attorney representing Mrs. Dunning’s daughter Corinne Swartz and Mrs. Dunning’s estate.

Mrs. Dunning died Sept. 13, 11 days after Mrs. Swartz said her mother ate some of the bagged spinach. The lawsuit contends that stool samples collected at Washington County Hospital before she died tested positive for E. coli 0157:H7, the strain blamed for deaths in Idaho, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

But neither the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) nor the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were able to isolate that strain of E. coli in samples of the deceased patient’s colon tissue or spinach from a partially full bag found in her home, DHMH spokeswoman Karen Black said.

Mr. Marler said the colon tissue was improperly preserved in formaldehyde, which destroyed any bacteria, and that the stool sample was lost before public health agencies could test it. Miss Black declined to comment on tissue preservation but said her agency hadn’t lost any samples associated with the E. coli outbreak.

The CDC laboratory report says the spinach from the home contained another strain of E. coli, 0146:H21, that was indistinguishable from a strain found in a bag of spinach in Illinois that also contained the outbreak strain.

Mr. Marler said both strains of E. coli were found in the stool of a confirmed outbreak patient in Wisconsin, raising the possibility that some of the tainted spinach contained multiple strains of illness-inducing bacteria.

Although Mrs. Dunning won’t be listed by the CDC as a victim of the outbreak, Mr. Marler said the connection is clear: “From a legal perspective, it frankly just doesn’t matter whether she is officially ever counted or not. This is a case that without any question is part of this outbreak, and she died as a result of eating Dole baby spinach.”

Mrs. Dunning’s son-in-law, Warren A. Swartz, said the family wasn’t deterred by the findings. “I’m not discouraged by it,” he said. “I know in my heart what happened.”

Dole Food Co. spokesman Marty Ordman declined to comment on the findings, citing a company policy of silence on pending litigation.

Samantha Cabaluna, a spokeswoman for Natural Selection Foods LLC, a California spinach grower that is also named in the lawsuit, also declined to comment on the findings.

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