Five Arizonans have been hospitalized, including three children, with the same virulent strain of E. coli that has been linked to bagged spinach and sickened at least 146 people in 23 states.
One person remains in the hospital, but the rest have recovered, acting state epidemiologist Ken Komatsu said Wednesday.
Two were from Maricopa County — a child under 10 and an adult over 70 — but state and local public health officials would not identify them, citing federal health privacy rules. Komatsu said they became ill in late August.
Several East Valley hospital officials said they had not seen this strain of E. coli among their patients.
Lab tests this week confirmed that five of 11 cases under review have the same DNA fingerprint as the E. coli 0157 that the Food and Drug Administration is blaming on tainted spinach.
Results on several other Arizona cases should be available Friday, and new reports of E. coli continue to come into the Arizona State Laboratory for follow-up testing.
Nationwide, more than half of those who became ill were hospitalized, 23 developed kidney failure and one Wisconsin woman has died.
New Mexico’s state laboratory found the same E. coli strain in a bag of spinach from which someone had eaten before they became ill. But investigators still don’t know — and may never know — where in the growing, production or distribution cycle the bacteria was introduced.
Federal public health investigators were focusing on nine farms in California’s Salinas Valley, looking for signs of past flooding or other sources of crop contamination, as well as potential bacteria breeding grounds in packaging operations.
People are advised to avoid fresh spinach and any products that contain fresh spinach, regardless of its source, until further notice. But it’s unlikely they’d find any in grocery stores or restaurants anyway as voluntary recalls have all but eliminated the supply. Canned and frozen spinach are safe to eat.
“We’re still investigating new cases as they’re reported,” Komatsu said. “We expect that the number of new cases will go down.”
The country’s leading organic produce company, Natural Selection Foods, issued a voluntary recall of bagged spinach and salad mixes Friday after the FDA linked its produce to the illnesses. Another Californiabased grower, River Ranch, recalled its spinach products Sunday. Both companies are centered in the Salinas Valley.
Natural Selection has a farm in Yuma, but state Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Shilo Mitchell said the last Arizona spinach harvest was in April. Farmers will start planting spinach in November, she said.
Arizona produces 15 percent of the country’s spinach crop, with farmers harvesting nearly 110 million pounds of the leafy vegetable last year. Nearly 75 percent is grown in California.
Mitchell said the department will decide whether to reconsider its inspection procedures once the FDA completes its investigation into the tainted spinach. Currently, 11 inspectors survey the state’s $6.6 billion agriculture industry.
Growers and food safety experts say there’s no way to inspect every vegetable, and consumers couldn’t afford such regulation.
“It’s not ever going to be a perfect system,” said Sharon Hoelscher Day of the University of Arizona’s Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County. “Americans are not willing to pay for an inspection system that checks every little leaf.”
Besides, it’s in the produce company’s best interest to do whatever they can to ensure its fruits and vegetables are safe.
“This is costing lots of people lots of money,” Hoelscher Day said. “Nobody wants to be the one that makes people sick.”
E. coli is a bacteria that lives in the intestines of mammals, and is passed through fecal matter, sometimes in fertilizer or contaminated water. It can also be passed from person to person if those who are ill don’t thoroughly wash their hands after using the toilet.
Most E. coli outbreaks stem from undercooked hamburger, but recently leafy vegetables appear to have been the culprits.
Longtime Arizona melon grower Art Martorisaid people need to remember that produce is grown outdoors, open to birds and other animals that can roam among the crops. Millions of people eat fruits and vegetables every day without getting sick, he said.
“Some people are going to get sick from E. coli, and occasionally they’re going to die,” he said. “We haven’t figured out how to grow all of our produce in a sterile atmosphere, and it’s never going to happen.”
Martori said bagged produce can be like “a little incubator system” for bacteria, especially if it isn’t kept at the proper temperature.
The FDA launched a federal review of lettuce growing practices in response to recurring outbreaks of lettucelinked E. coli over the past several years. The review has now been expanded to include spinach.
“We don’t usually see such a widespread outbreak,” Komatsu said. “But with our just-in-time economy, where things are delivered instantaneously, that increases the rate of spread of these kinds of events.”