California Company Issues Lettuce Recall

A company in California's Salinas Valley, where a recent E. coli contamination of spinach originated, has recalled Foxy brand lettuce after irrigation water tested positive for the bacterium. So far, the lettuce does not appear to have caused any illnesses.

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First spinach, now lettuce. A company in California's Salinas Valley, where the tainted spinach was grown, has recalled a brand of lettuce because of the possibility of E. coli contamination. So far, the lettuce does not appear to have caused any illnesses, but it joins certain brands of spinach, bottled carrot juice and some shipments of beef on the list of things to watch.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: It's only green leaf lettuce with the Foxy label that's been recalled. Foxy brand produce is grown by the Nunez Company, which farms 20,000 acres in California and Arizona. Tom Nunez, Jr., the president of the company, says the decision to recall more than 8,500 cases of the leaf lettuce was made after testing a reservoir of irrigation water and finding E. coli present.

Mr. TOM NUNEZ, JR. (Nunez Company): We were unaware before we harvested the field that this field was being irrigated by this particular reservoir, which we had not tested. Once we had found out that there was water put on from this reservoir, we tested the reservoir.

JAFFE: So far, there have been no illnesses reported, and almost all of the questionable leaf lettuce has been removed from stores and has been or soon will be destroyed. Nunez described the E. coli found in the reservoir as generic. He doesn't know yet if it's the same virulent strain that contaminated Salinas Valley spinach last month, the kind that can lead to kidney failure and caused nearly 200 illnesses and three deaths.

Mr. NUNEZ: It may not even be the bad stuff. We don't know, but we're not going to take the chance.

JAFFE: The Nunez Company is continuing to test water from the irrigation reservoir to identify the exact strain. How consumers will react to the second E. coli scare from produce grown in the Salinas Valley is at this point uncertain, says agricultural economist Dan Sumner of the University of California at Davis. It may make a difference, he says, that this time, the recall was preemptive, and no one's gotten sick.

Dr. DAN SUMNER (University of California at Davis): And if it stays that way, I think the industry will weather the lettuce cast fairly well.

JAFFE: Lettuce overall is a billion dollar industry, says Sumner, and a lot of the lettuce the nation consumes comes from the Salinas Valley, says Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

Mr. BOB PERKINS (Monterey County Farm Bureau): The Salinas Valley prides itself on being the salad bowl of the world.

JAFFE: Since the spinach scare, he says, growers have been looking for ways to make their farming practices safer.

Mr. PERKINS: Everybody in the vegetable industry understands that whatever we develop for spinach is very likely going to be implemented for the other commodities.

JAFFE: Last week, consumers were also warned to stay away from some bottled carrot juice. Apparently, botulism developed in unrefrigerated bottles, leaving one woman in Florida paralyzed and three people in Georgia suffering from respiratory failure. And last Friday, an Iowa company recalled more than 5,000 pounds of beef because of possible E. coli contamination. By far the most cases of E. coli are caused by eating undercooked ground beef.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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