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Spinach Growers Develop Safety Plan

Spinach Growers Counter Criticism With Food Safety Plan

Produce growers and processors scrutinized every aspect of their food safety procedures on Thursday after federal investigators searching for the source of a nationwide E. coli outbreak narrowed their search to three Central California counties.

Western Growers, an industry group representing about 3,000 fruit and vegetable farmers in California and other states, planned to unveil a proposal for protecting produce from the bacteria that has sickened that 146 people and killed one since last month.

"Generally, everything will be reviewed," said Tim Chelling, spokesman for Western Growers. "Health and human safety are our primary concerns."

A contaminated bag of Dole baby spinach found Wednesday at the New Mexico home of a person who fell ill helped investigators focus in on the source of the current E. coli scare. The bacteria-tainted spinach was packaged by Natural Selection Foods, a San Juan Bautista company that packages salad greens sold under dozens of brands.

The industry blueprint scheduled to be unveiled on Thursday was developed after 75 farmers and trade association representatives met with the Monterey County agricultural commissioner Wednesday to examine the production and distribution process for areas where the contamination might have happened.

State regulators directed the growers to develop a plan for preventing prevent future outbreaks during a meeting this week at the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security in Davis.

State health officials think the tainted spinach likely originated in at least one of nine farms and several processing plants in Monterey, San Benito or Santa Clara counties. They narrowed the search for the suspect after E. Coli found in the opened bag of Dole spinach belonging to the New Mexico resident matched the bacteria strain in others recently sickened.

Inspectors have been looking at such factors as irrigation water, worker hygiene and fertilization methods. But Chelling said the effectiveness of any security measures taken by farmers and processors would depend on pinpointing the source of the problem. "Absent that, you'll be applying a shot gun series of solutions that may or may not help," Chelling said.

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