- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

From combined dispatches

An outbreak of E. coli from spinach that killed at least three persons and sickened almost 200 was caused by contamination from cattle fecal matter, state and federal officials said yesterday.

A California laboratory found the same strain of E. coli in three samples of cattle feces taken from a ranch that raises cattle and grows produce, Kevin Reilly, deputy director of prevention services with the California Department of Health Services, told reporters.

“We do not have a smoking cow at this point,” he said. The finding is significant because health officials have never made this extensive a connection to the source in previous E. coli outbreaks from California’s Salinas Valley, he said.

The Department of Health Services and the Food and Drug Administration are still looking at four ranches in the California counties of Monterey and San Benito as possible sources of the outbreak, Mr. Reilly said.

There are still many unanswered questions and the probe is continuing, said Robert Brackett, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Investigators still do not know how the feces could have contaminated the spinach implicated in the bacterial outbreak. They also do not know whether the ranch used manure from the cattle to fertilize its fields.

Nor is there evidence that livestock entered the spinach fields on the ranch. However, wild pigs roamed the property, they said.

“There’s lots of wildlife and lots of potential for breakdown in the fencing,” Mr. Reilly told reporters.

The strain of pathogenic E. coli O157:H7 was found in three cattle fecal samples collected at the ranch, one of four under investigation, the officials said. It matched the strain found in sick patients and in bags of recalled spinach.

Investigators continue to look at irrigation water and the hygiene of farm workers as potential sources of the bacteria.

The recent outbreak of E. coli in spinach was the 20th such outbreak in lettuce or spinach since 1995.

The finding marks the first time that investigators have identified a possible source for an E. coli outbreak in the region, M. Reilly said.

The produce company that processed and packaged the spinach at the center of the outbreak investigation has repeatedly said its factories are blameless and pointed to the fields where the greens are grown as the potential source of the problem.

“This definitely reinforces our belief that the source was environmental,” said Samantha Cabaluna, a spokeswoman for Natural Selection Foods.

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