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Fortunately, when outbreaks do occur, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta is better equipped than ever to investigate clusters of disease cases and trace their cause. In this outbreak, the first call came into the CDC on Wednesday afternoon. An epidemiologist at the state health department in Wisconsin had been investigating almost 20 reports of E. coli poisoning in a matter of days, and after some initial labwork and extensive interviews with the victims, all of whom had reported bloody diarrhea, the scientists there suspected that bagged spinach might be the culprit, and called Atlanta. Shortly after, Dr. Patricia Griffin, chief of enteric diseases at CDC, says that the agency received a call from an epidemiologist in the state health department in Oregon. He had five cases, also traced to bagged spinach, and wondered if anyone else in the country had been reporting E. coli illnesses. The information was added to CDC's database, and after comparing the lab work done in the two states, says Griffin, the CDC realized the cases could be traced to the same subtype of E. coli, which suggested that the illnesses had a common cause bagged spinach. After more investigation on Thursday to confirm the source, including trying to come up with the actual brand or brands responsible, the CDC decided on Thursday afternoon to issue its warning to consumers on bagged spinach. "We're still very early in this investigation," she told TIME. "New information in coming in constantly."
While it's still not clear exactly how the packaged spinach was contaminated, health officials suggest that no bagged spinach should be eaten raw. Cooking the leaves at 160 degrees Fahrenheit will kill the organisms, but washing, even in warm water, may not be enough to eliminate all of the bacteria that may have become embedded in the plant tissues when stalks or leaves are broken.