SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. (AP) – A produce processing company at the center of the E. coli outbreak that has sickened at least 183 people, killing one, is starting to test a sample from each lot of greens they package, hoping to stop future outbreaks, the company’s CEO said Thursday.

The ultimate source of the bacteria is still unknown. But government officials have found nine bags of Dole brand baby spinach that tested positive for the bacteria were packed by privately held Natural Selection Foods LLC, and that the tainted greens were grown in either Monterey, San Benito or Santa Clara counties.

Recent testing of Natural Selection Food’s facilities by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the California Department of Health Services showed the company’s processing plants are clean, said Natural Selection Foods CEO Charles Sweat. Still, he announced the company already is implementing more stringent testing procedures, adopting a sampling system much like the one that helped reduce the number of human E. coli infections caused by beef.

“While we had food safety practices in place, we need to move to a new level of food safety,” he said.

In the meantime, the company is continuing to collaborate with federal and state investigators in their search for the source of the bacteria, Sweat said.

In addition to testing the produce as it comes in, the company will start to develop food safety guidelines for the farmers whose produce they wash and package, Sweat said. The new protocol will include audits on growers, internal audits on company staff and the enforcement of sanitation guidelines for farm equipment and packaging supplies.

Results from tests being conducted in farms are not yet available. Tracing the tainted greens back to the individual fields is difficult because the product of different growers is mixed before being packaged, Sweat said.

There are also many points in the food processing chain when the spinach may have come in contact with the bacteria, said Mansour Samadpour, a microbiologist helping Natural Selection Foods in their investigation.

“You have to look at the seed, at land use practices, at the proximity of livestock, and the water used and the runoff, look at animals,” he said.

The company’s long-standing safety measures have included testing the water that comes into the facility for temperature, acidity and chlorine content every half an hour, Sweat said.

But this outbreak and the suffering it has caused made it clear that the industry needs to do more, reaching outside the processing plants to the fields where the greens are grown, he said.

Sweat said the company will also reach out to the people who were sickened by spinach packaged by their plant and offer to reimburse their out-of-pocket medical expenses.

“We know there are people out there who have suffered,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

On the Net:

California Department of Health Services:

U.S. Food and Drug Administration:

Natural Selection Foods:

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