SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. -- Federal agents searched two California produce companies yesterday in connection with the nationwide E. coli outbreak that killed one person and sickened at least 191 others, the U.S. attorney's office said.
The searches were the first indication that authorities suspect a crime might have been committed in the outbreak that killed a Wisconsin woman, sickened people in 26 states and prompted the FDA to issue a two-week consumer warning against fresh spinach last month.
The FBI was joined by agents from the Food and Drug Administration's criminal investigations office. The warrants were executed at the Natural Selection Foods LLC plant in San Juan Bautista and at Growers Express in Salinas to see whether food safety rules were violated, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco.
No new threat
Federal officials do not think anyone at the plants deliberately contaminated spinach with the virulent bacteria and said the searches do not mean there is a continuing or new threat to public health.
"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 it was placed into interstate commerce." U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan said.
FBI spokesman Joe Schadler said authorities were investigating possible felony violations of federal environmental laws. He would not disclose what agents sought or seized at the two plants.
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 baby spinach tested positive for the same bacteria strain found in people who fell ill after eating the leafy greens.
Natural Selection CEO Charles Sweat said agents requested paperwork, including documents already provided to the FDA and the California Department of Health Services.
In a statement, he defended his plant's cleanliness.
"We have believed from the outset that our facilities were not the source of the contamination," Sweat said. "We have been concerned that the contamination may have originated in the fields where the product is grown."
Growers Express grows and packs produce, including iceberg lettuce sold under the Green Giant Fresh label and Farm Day packaged spinach.
Until yesterday, 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 immediately return a call seeking comment.
Looking for source
Because 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.
Federal and state officials previously said they had narrowed their search for the E. coli source to nine farms in Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara counties that grew spinach for Natural Selection Foods.
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 past two months.
Companies can be convicted if they are shown to have been negligent in preventing tainted foods from entering the market, even if they were unaware of the contamination, Weisbecker said.
Last month, the federal government warned consumers not to eat fresh spinach after reports of contamination surfaced. Companies, including Natural Selection, voluntarily pulled the product from supermarket shelves.
The federal warning was lifted Sept. 29.
Michael Muskal writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.