Health experts say no amount of washing will make pre-packaged spinach safe.
The FDA says it has linked the E. coli outbreak from bagged, pre-washed spinach to only one place so far: a large, organic foods supplier in California.
Late Friday, Earthbound Farms of California decided to voluntarily pull all of the company's spinach from store shelves. Its Natural Selection Foods brand was linked to the outbreak. Its products are sold under various names, including Selection Foods, Rave Spinach, Dole, Earthbound Farm, Trader Joe's and Ready Pac.
The tainted spinach has made nearly 100 people sick in 20 states. It is being blamed for at least one death.
But federal officials warn that the tainted spinach may be found in products other than those from Natural Selection, which is based in San Juan Bautista, Calif.
Robert Brackett is the director of the Federal Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety. He says if you have packaged spinach that you purchased recently, you should dump it.
"Once the organism is on the tissue itself, it is extremely difficult to eliminate. Even when the consumer washes it in their own home, they're not going to get rid of the E. coli if it's there," Brackett says.
The FDA has issued a warning to all states, because it's unknown at this time how widely the product has been distributed.
So far the tainted spinach has turned up in nine states: Connecticut, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon Utah, Kentucky and Wisconsin, where 20 people got sick and one died.
"E. coli grow in the intestines of cattle," says Carol Tucker Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America. "The fact that spinach has been infected with this organism means that the spinach somehow came into contact with cattle feces. That might happen in an open field if they were using unsterilized manure," Foreman says.
In 1993, four children died in an outbreak traced to Jack in the Box hamburgers. That led to major reforms in the way ground beef is inspected. But Foreman says similar inspections of packaged produce are not in place.
"They are not inspected on a regular basis; there is no regular testing to make sure that whatever efforts a company is making are effective," she says.
During this time of year the Salinas Valley in California is the nation's major source of fresh spinach. Much of it is grown organically, often fertilized with cow manure. Advocates of organic farming are worried that their industry may be tarnished by the outbreak.
The FDA's Robert Brackett says his agency is focusing on more than the organic produce industry:
"Well, we're looking at all of them. Anybody that would be using a raw animal manure, of course, would automatically rise to the top of our list to look at."
Brackett says the task ahead is to identify specific brands, and even specific case lots, that may be the source of the problem.