Warrants served in E. coli spinach investigation
SAN JUAN BAUTISTA (AP) – Federal agents raided two Salinas Valley produce companies Wednesday for evidence of a crime in the nationwide E. coli outbreak that killed one person and sickened at least 192 others.
Agents from the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration’s criminal investigations office executed search warrants at the Natural Selection Foods LLC plant in San Juan Bautista and Growers Express in Salinas to see if they violated food safety and environmental laws.
“We are investigating allegations that certain spinach growers and distributors may not have taken all necessary or appropriate steps to ensure that their spinach was safe before they were placed into interstate commerce,” U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan said.
The searches were the first indication a crime may have been committed in the outbreak that killed a Wisconsin woman, sickened people in 26 states and Canada, and led to a two-week FDA warning not to eat fresh spinach.
“We’re definitely looking into the possibility that there was a criminal violation of federal environmental laws,” which would be a felony, said FBI spokesman Joe Schadler.
An executive for Natural Selection, which the FDA previously identified as having produced bags of spinach implicated in the outbreak, stood by his plant’s cleanliness and pointed the finger at growers.
“We continue to believe that the source of the contamination was in the fields from which we buy our spinach,” Chief Executive Officer Charles Sweat said in a statement.
Federal and state officials previously said they had narrowed their search for the E. coli’s source to nine farms in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties that grew spinach for Natural Selection Foods.
Federal officials do not think anyone at the plants deliberately contaminated spinach with the virulent bacteria, and the searches do not mean there is an ongoing or new threat to public health.
“There is no indication there was any tampering of willful contamination or anything like that,” Schadler said.
The federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act provides criminal penalties for companies involved in the production or sale of “adulterated foods,” said Andy Weisbecker, a Seattle lawyer whose firm is representing dozens of people who got sick eating spinach in the last two months.
To be convicted under the act, companies do not need to have known their products were contaminated, merely negligent in their duties to prevent tainted foods from entering the market, Weisbecker said.
“If someone out there is pumping out hundreds of pounds of pork with trichinosis in it, you don’t have to know you are doing that to be found potentially criminally negligent,” he said.
Since E. coli is found in animal and human feces, state and federal inspectors trying to pinpoint the source of contamination have focused on irrigation water, fertilization methods, worker hygiene and the proximity of fields to livestock.
The FBI would not say what agents sought or seized at the two plants, but said they gathered enough preliminary evidence to get a judge to sign the warrants.
Sweat said agents requested paperwork, including documents already provided to the FDA and the California Department of Health Services. After agents executed the warrant just after 9 a.m., they went in and out of the building carrying attache cases. An FDA agent with a holstered gun declined to comment.
Natural Selection, which packages spinach sold under 34 brand names and supplies spinach to other food processors, was implicated in the E. coli outbreak after 11 bags of Dole brand spinach tested positive for the same bacteria strain found in people who fell ill after eating the leafy greens.
Growers Express grows and packs produce, including Farm Day packaged spinach. Until Wednesday, the company had not been named in the investigation of how the tainted spinach ended up in bags and on store shelves.
A representative for Growers Express did not return calls seeking comment. Workers there would not answer questions about the FBI agents who remained on-site all day.
The recent spinach scare was at least the ninth food-borne illness outbreak traced to produce from the Salinas Valley. Both the FDA and California health and agriculture officials have ordered fruit and vegetable growers to develop a plan to minimize the risk of another outbreak in all leafy greens, including lettuce.
Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, declined to comment on Wednesday’s raids, saying the investigation was ongoing.
– Associated Press Writer Lisa Leff in San Francisco contributed to this report.