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California crops again put in question

New E. coli woe may hurt farms

OXNARD, Calif. -- California's farming industry is girding for another possible setback, after a second outbreak this year of a potentially deadly strain of E. coli linked to its crops.

Green onions served in Taco Bell restaurants are suspected as the source of dozens of illnesses in the Eastern United States, and the fast-food chain has called for an industry review of the produce supply system extending to California.

The onions came from the seaside region around Oxnard in Southern California. The small city is surrounded by acres of strawberry farms, and fields growing onions, lettuce, and other crops.

Farming is a major business in California, the nation's leading agricultural producing and exporting state. Vegetables make up nearly a quarter of the $31.8 billion in 2005 farm revenue generated by the state.

"Everyone is real concerned about this," said Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau, the state's largest agricultural trade group.

The latest E. coli outbreak followed a similar scare in supermarkets in September that was eventually traced to spinach grown in California's Salinas Valley.

The spinach scare sent growers scrambling to do better.

They were developing food safety guidelines when the latest illnesses reached the news last week.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agency has said it expected the number of cases from the latest outbreak to grow. The agency has counted more than 60 confirmed cases, most of them in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

Oxnard's Boskovich Farms supplied the onions to Ready Pac Foods, a food processor for Taco Bell, a unit of Yum Brands Inc.

Responding to food poisoning cases traced to its restaurants, Taco Bell tested the onions and made a preliminary determination that three samples were positive for E. coli O157:H7. The chain is no longer serving green onions at its 5,800 US restaurants.

Lindsay Martinez, a Boskovich spokeswoman, confirmed that the onions were grown in the vicinity of Oxnard.

The findings are not conclusive, and Taco Bell is conducting more tests. The possibility that California produce may be the source of a second E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in four months has triggered a new round of inspections at farms, packaging plants, and distribution centers in the state.

Inspectors are trying to determine how the strain may be entering the food supply.

"Nobody is trying to duck and cover," said Tim Chelling, spokesman for the Western Growers Association.

E. coli O157:H7 is a pathogen present in livestock that has emerged as the leading cause of hemorrhagic colitis in humans.

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