"They told us we were free to stay, but they locked down our computers and told us if we left we couldn't come back into the building," said company Vice President of Sales and Marketing Woody Johnson. The FBI and FDA then began poring through files and computer records looking for evidence of violations of federal law.
Growers Express was not the only store in the Salinas Valley to get a visit from federal agents. Natural Selection Foods was also raided, but their bagged spinach had tested positive for the strain of E. coli involved in the outbreak. A spokesperson for Natural Selection said both independent and government tests at its processing facility have come up "clean" and said the E. coli problem likely started in the fields.
Growers Express, on the other hand, has been recognized in the past as an exemplar of food safety and, more importantly, does not process fresh, bagged spinach, which is the only product shown to have E. coli contamination so far. The company does market a small amount of bagged spinach, but purchases the food from processors who have not been part of the recent recall.
Johnson said Thursday that the raid was not about spinach, but came about due to the company's food-safety system, which serves as a sales and marketing service for independent growers without the means to run their own food-safety program.
"We provide the independents with the price of admission to sell to national retailers," he said. "We have internal audits, external audits, and there's a lot of documentation here." Johnson noted that the company policy requires the records always be available and that the company doesn't have the ability to hide the records if they wanted to.
"We were surprised they chose to do it with a sledgehammer and not just pick up the phone," he said.
The original source of the E. coli outbreak has still not been determined, but some pending test results may answer that question, according to California health officials. Earlier in the week, investigators announced E. coli had been detected in manure samples collected in some cattle pastures next to spinach fields, and tests are being conducted to verify whether or not the strain matches the one found in spinach. If the strains do match, California officials have said they want to know how the contamination reached the spinach fields. Environmental and consumer groups say contaminated water runoff from livestock fields is a known threat to food safety.
"It's very common and very difficult to control all the time," said Christine Bruhn, a food scientist and director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis, adding that contaminated water or partially decomposed compost containing manure could have caused the outbreak.
So far, the outbreak has caused 192 people to fall ill and has claimed the lives of a toddler and an elderly woman.