WASHINGTON – It's safe to eat spinach grown outside California's Salinas Valley, federal health officials say, and the leafy greens could return to produce shelves in a few days.
An ongoing outbreak of E. coli linked to fresh spinach had sickened 166 people in 25 states through Friday. That's up from 157 victims in 23 states a day earlier, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For more than a week, the Food and Drug Administration has recommend people not eat fresh, raw spinach. State and federal investigators since have traced the contaminated spinach back to three California counties, and already farm inspections there are turning up possible problems.
On Friday, officials said spinach grown anywhere outside that area is safe to eat — but industry needs to figure out how to let consumers know the origin of what they're buying before the green can return to sale, said Dr. David Acheson of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
"The public can be confident that spinach grown in those non-implicated areas can be consumed and industry is working to get spinach from these areas back on the market," Acheson told reporters.
"I anticipate it will be fast," he later said of that process. "Whether it will be three days, four days — I don't know. That will be an industry determination."
Of those infected in the outbreak, 88 have been hospitalized, including a Wisconsin woman who died. Two other deaths have been reported in suspected cases — a child in Idaho and an elderly woman in Maryland — but those cases are still being investigated.
A team of 20 state and federal investigators on Friday were to visit the 10th California field associated with the contaminated spinach, said Mark Roh, the FDA's acting regional food and drug director for the Pacific region. Inspectors were looking for standing water, animal droppings and anything else unusual, as well as assessing the sanitation practices of farm workers. They also have taken 188 water, soil and produce samples from fields and processing plants.
The team already has spotted some potential problems.
"There are some situations of concern, may I say, that would warrant some possible corrections in the near future," Roh told reporters by telephone. When asked to elaborate, a spokeswoman broke in and said the FDA would not, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation. The farm and plant inspections are expected to last another week.
Last week, Natural Selection Foods LLC of San Juan Bautista, Calif., recalled all its spinach and spinach-containing products. Many people reported eating the company's spinach, sold under multiple brands, before falling sick. And a package of Dole baby spinach, one of those brands, taken from a victim's refrigerator tested positive for E. coli.
On Friday, S.T. Produce, based in Seattle, became the third company to recall salad products that may have included Natural Selection spinach. The other two are River Ranch Fresh Foods of Salinas, Calif., and RLB Food Distributors of West Caldwell, N.J.
S.T. Produce said its salads were distributed to stores and delis in Washington state, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
States newly reporting cases as of Friday were Maryland, with three cases, and Tennessee, one.
Other states reporting cases are Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Acheson said the CDC could continue to receive new reports of illness into the first week of October.