No one knew how to get started as "we were all equals," Lugg says. By the time the one-hour meeting ended, the companies had told the officials how they would gather production records for the past three months. Lugg suspects the officials had expected to get them that day.
That, too, would turn out to be a wrong assumption.
With at least three processors to check out, it would take almost two weeks for investigators to narrow their search from 12 fields to the final four. Investigators even pulled empty spinach bags out of consumer garbage cans to get clues. "It was like a big treasure hunt," says the FDA's Cassens.
Indeed, tracing the contaminated produce that people ate back to the greens processed by Natural Selection and the field they came from involved thousands of pages of documents, some handwritten.
Even with a record in hand, Kevin Reilly, then an investigator for the California Department of Health Services, says investigators must verify that what is on the record jibes with what plant managers and workers say happened. "It is a CSI-like investigation," he says, referring to the popular CBS show.
A big break came on Sept. 20, when researchers in New Mexico proved that the strain of O157:H7 from the P227A Dole bags of spinach was identical to the strain that was infecting people. The code indicated the product was made at Natural Selection's south plant (P) on the 227th day of the year, (Aug. 15) on the first of two shifts (A). "It was the first time we had a code, a bag of product and an E. coli match," says the FDA's Cassens.
That was also the day on which 2-year-old Kyle Allgood died.
Even with the confirmed P227A code, Cassens says it would take investigators seven days of poring through records to narrow the investigation to what turned out to be the four ranches that supplied the P227A product.
On Sept. 22, the FDA felt confident enough to tell consumers that it was safe to eat spinach grown outside three California counties: Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara. The contaminated product, it was later discovered, most likely came from San Benito and the 2.8-acre slice of the 51-acre field on Paicines Ranch.
That entire field now sits fallow along a lonesome stretch of highway that cuts through a narrow valley between hillsides covered in brush and grass. Natural Selection says an extensive risk assessment will be done before it will be considered for leafy greens again.
The grower, Mission Organics, didn't have an outside company check the field's food-safety risks before last year's outbreak, investigators said. Sweat of Natural Selection says the company requires such third-party audits for every ranch that supplies it, and now checks to make sure its growers comply.
FDA and California investigators issued their report on March 23, almost two months after the death of Betty Howard. They didn't pinpoint how the spinach was tainted, saying the culprits that carried the O157:H7 might have been wild pigs that lived near the field or irrigation water from wells not grouted to prevent seepage from groundwater exposed to feces.
The investigators also said there was no evidence that the contamination started at the Natural Selections plant. But they said conditions inside the plant may have allowed pathogens to spread.
There were no indications that the contamination was the product of a deliberate act.