The investigation into an outbreak of E. coli that killed one person and sickened more than 140 others both broadened and shrank on Wednesday, as more victims were reported and scientists zeroed in on the contaminated spinach that caused the illness.

In Washington, federal officials said that they had narrowed the focus of their investigation after health officials in New Mexico announced that they found the strain of E. coli responsible for the outbreak in an open bag of baby spinach in the refrigerator of a sickened woman.

That batch, under the Dole brand, was hailed as a “smoking gun” by California officials who have been frantically trying to identify the source of the infection, which has halted the state’s spinach harvest and raised the specter of millions of dollars of agricultural losses.

The authorities traced the spinach to one of three counties — Monterey, San Benito and Santa Clara, all south of San Francisco — and investigators continued to prowl plants and farms looking for evidence of the bacteria, which can cause diarrhea, kidney failure and even death reports the New York Times

As of Wednesday, 146 people in 23 states had been sickened by E. coli from fresh spinach, with 76 requiring hospitalization, including 23 who have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious kidney problem.

While federal and California officials seemed somewhat relieved by the day’s developments, concerns continued to percolate in agricultural counties. In San Juan Bautista, about 90 miles south of San Francisco, where street signs are hand-painted and farms back into modern housing
developments, residents said a serious farm disruption could shatter the economy.

Few agricultural leaders were discussing economic damage, as spinach sat unpicked on thousands of acres, saying the health issues far outweighed their money woes.