Possible E. coli Outbreak Causes - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Possible E. coli Outbreak Causes

KENNEWICK, Wash. - The number of people who've gotten sick from E. coli contaminated spinach continues to rise. So far no one knows how the spinach became contaminated, but one local expert has some ideas.

As of Tuesday, 183 people nationwide have been infected with the E. coli outbreak strain. So far the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has linked the strain to farms in three counties in California. But the question remains, how did it get there in the first place?

Spinach companies across the country are pulling their products off the shelves. So far inspectors have not determined how E. coli contaminated spinach got its start, but one local expert said it could one of four possibilities.

Fertilizer or irrigation water could've been contaminated. Workers may not have washed their hands handling the spinach, or improper sanitization in processing procedure.

"This is a very large scale, not just one field, it is a large or chronic, more systemic problem which points to a fertilizer, irrigation water or post harvest handling problem," said Alan Schreiber, Agricultural Development Group.  

Schreiber cautions however that although these are possible theories, no one has proven these type of events caused the outbreak.

"Sometimes things happen we don't know about, you can get water that's contaminated that you don't know about. Sometimes you can get contaminated ground water or surface water. We don't know what happened," said Schreiber.   

Until inspectors determine the cause. the possibilities remain, but Schreiber said that doesn't mean people should worry about Washington's water supply or fertilizers.

"The fertilizer that people use here should be perfectly safe either conventional or organic. The companies that make the fertilizer take a tremendous amount of effort into ensuring their safety."

In Washington State only three people have gotten sick from the E. coli contaminated spinach. However, health officials are still waiting test results to confirm a fourth case.