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MADELINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick.

For many of us last fall's scare about tainted spinach came and went pretty quickly. But for the California food company at the heart of the crisis, life has changed and probably forever.

BRAND: Natural Selection Foods is testing everything for disease-causing bacteria, and from time to time the company still finds some.

Samuel Fromartz reports.

SAMUEL FROMARTZ: It's been eight months since E. coli bacteria in spinach infected 205 people and left three dead. Investigators are pretty sure they know where the bacteria came from - a cattle ranch in the Salinas Valley.

But they don't know precisely how the E. coli jumped to a spinach field a mile away. So produce companies aren't sure how to prevent it from happening again. What they can do, though, is test everything.

Mr. WILL DANIELS(ph) (Natural Selection Foods): This is our receiving room.

FROMARTZ: Will Daniels stands in a warehouse filled with six-foot high pallets of fresh salad greens. He's head of food safety at Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista, California. This is the company that handled the deadly spinach last fall.

Mr. DANIELS: Product is coming off of those refrigerated trucks and sampled for our raw material testing whole program.

FROMARTZ: Fifty tractor trailer trucks pull in here every day. Each one unloads nearly 10,000 pounds of salad greens. Each day the company takes 9,600 samples for testing, and they have found disease-causing microbes. There aren't many - about one out 100,000 test positive - but it keeps happening.

Mr. DANIELS: We started sampling back in October and through that process we've had about 35 positives, presumptive positives.

FROMARTZ: Of what? For what?

Mr. DANIELS: For all three organisms - O-157, enterohemorrhagic E. coli, and salmonella.

FROMARTZ: The dangerous bacteria have been found in produce grown in California, Arizona and Mexico.

Mr. DANIELS: As soon as we get the positive, presumptive positive on the raw material, that product goes immediately to the - to landfill.

FROMARTZ: There have been cases before last fall of E. coli fresh greens, some 20 cases over 10 years. But Charles Sweat, president of Natural Selection Foods, didn't think the problem was serious enough to require daily testing.

Mr. CHARLES SWEAT (President, Natural Selection Foods): You know, we've been in this business since 1984 and for 20-plus years we never had a food-borne illness outbreak at any time.

FROMARTZ: When the crisis hit last year, Sweat contacted the beef industry, which has been dealing with E. coli contamination for many years. He found a quick test that could spit out results in 12 hours. When the company started testing, it got its first hit within a week.

Mr. SWEAT: Initially the very first one we got back was a little surprising, but I think as we learn more from the science board that we brought on as our science advisers, what they've educated us about is that this bacteria exists. And as you test, you will find it.

FROMARTZ: Finished product going out the door is also tested. And so far all those have come back clean. The company cautions, however, that it can't test every bag.

Marion Nestle, who teaches nutrition at New York University, is a frequent critic of the food industry. She was in California recently and visited the company.

Professor MARION NESTLE (New York University): I thought it was very impressive. You know, the problem is that you can't ever guarantee that something that's grown in the ground is going to be perfectly safe. You never can guarantee perfect safety. What you're aiming for is a level of safety that is acceptable, and hopefully that it isn't going to kill people.

FROMARTZ: Nestle points to the beef industry, where fast-food companies started testing voluntarily after deadly outbreaks in the 1990s. But meat-packers didn't follow until the government passed regulations.

The testing program at Natural Selection Foods is voluntary right now. While produce companies have sought stiffer farming regulations, they have not backed a testing system as ambitious as this one, at least not yet.

For NPR News, this is Samuel Fromartz.

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