Oregon Woman Sues Over Alleged Tainted Spinach

A Salem woman who says eating bagged spinach caused a serious case of E. coli infection has filed a federal lawsuit against California-based Dole Food Company seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages.

While Dole is named in the lawsuit by Gwyn Wellborn, the exact source has not been pinpointed, said Dr. David Acheson of the Federal Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

He said Friday that they have traced the outbreak to Natural Selection Foods based in San Juan Bautista, Calif., but that it was possible that other brands and companies could be involved.

Wellborn, 27, is one of a growing number of consumers in about 20 states stricken recently after eating raw bagged spinach. The newest cases were reported Friday in Ohio and Kentucky.

"She had an acute illness, she had a fairly rough time of it," said Drew Falkenstein, a lawyer with the Seattle law firm Marler Clark, which specializes in food contamination cases and filed Wellborn's lawsuit.

Wellborn bought the spinach on or about Aug. 21 and ate it over several days, according to her lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Portland.

A week later, it says, she started getting worsening bouts of diarrhea and her husband took her to Salem Hospital. She was discharged but later readmitted for six days before being sent to Oregon Health and Science University in Portland after potentially lethal complications arose, according to the lawsuit.

She had at least four transfusions and other treatment, was discharged Sept. 8 and is slowly recovering at home, the lawsuit says.

"If I had nine lives, I'm pretty sure I spent every single one of them, so I feel very fortunate and I'm very, more than lucky to be alive today," Wellborn told KATU television.

E. coli has sickened scores of people, including at least five in Oregon and one in Washington and is blamed for one death in Wisconsin.

Dole spokesman Marty Ordman at Dole headquarters in Westlake Village, Calif., said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment. But he said Dole and the bagged salad industry generally are concentrating on the issue.

Meanwhile, the FDA is advising people to avoid fresh bagged spinach.

While the illness often is linked to undercooked meat, the lawsuit cited a study saying that of 225 outbreaks of food poisoning from 1990 to 1998, about 20 percent were linked to fresh fruits, vegetables or salads.

Most American spinach is grown in California. Dole's Web site says its prewashed spinach is washed three times and needn't be washed again.

Dole bills itself as the world's largest producer and marketer of quality fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers with 2004 revenues of $5.3 billion, doing business in more than 90 countries.

California produces about 75 percent of the nation's spinach. Much of it comes from the Salinas Valley, where previous outbreaks of the E. coli strain O157:H7 found in the current outbreak have been found.

"That organism is so virulent, it is particularly dangerous," said Robert Brackett, who directs the food safety division at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Drew Falkenstein, the Seattle attorney with the firm that filed the lawsuit, said that after a serious E. coli infection future kidney function "can be up in the air" and could require a transplant.