SAN FRANCISCO -- By launching a criminal investigation into the role of two produce companies in an outbreak of contaminated spinach, federal investigators are following a script used several times before to hold businesses responsible for mass food poisoning.
The cases, ranging from a juice producer whose apple juice killed a baby to a company that sold tainted hot dogs and lunch meats, have resulted in hefty fines and, in some cases, the development of new food safety standards.
Federal officials do not think anyone deliberately contaminated the spinach with E. coli, which has killed two people and sickened at least 193 others. Instead, the probe is focused on whether the companies took appropriate steps to make sure their products were safe to eat.
FBI and Food and Drug Administration agents spent 11 hours on Wednesday searching Natural Selection Foods LLC and Growers Express, sifting through records for evidence of a paper trail indicating that the spinach producers skirted food-handling procedures.
``We are looking more toward the food-safety issue at this point," FBI spokesman Joseph Schrader said yesterday, adding that the investigation was in its early stages and may or may not lead to criminal charges. It could also spread to other spinach producers, he said.
Also yesterday, health officials in Idaho confirmed that the death of a 2-year-old boy was caused by tainted spinach. Test results showed that Kyle Allgood was infected with the same E. coli strain that killed an elderly Wisconsin woman.
Legal specialists say the companies do not need to have known their products were contaminated to be convicted; they could be found negligent in duties to keep tainted foods from the market.
Lawyers involved in previous food poisoning cases said the government probably will try to charge the companies under the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act, which makes it a crime to sell or distribute ``adulterated" products .
The act is unusual because allowing tainted foods into interstate commerce could result in criminal charges, even without intent to violate the law, said Eric Greenberg, a law professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology.