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Listeria victim seeks jury trial in federal civil case against Dole

The daughter of an Ohio woman who is fighting her way back from a coma after eating a contaminated salad has filed the first lawsuit against Dole Food Co. related to a deadly, seven-month-long international Listeria outbreak.

Dole Food Co.

In her federal court complaint, Constance Georgostathis seeks unspecified damages for her mother Angeliki “Kiki” Christofield. Christofield fell ill in January after eating part of a packaged salad from Dole’s Springfield, OH, production facility.

Later in January the company recalled all salads produced at that plant because a routine government sampling program found Listeria monocytogenes in a packaged salad collected from a retail location. Dole officials reported to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Jan. 21 that the Springfield plant had been shut down for investigation and cleaning.

“Testing by the Ohio Department of Health on the same bag of Dole prepackaged salad mix that Mrs. Christofield had consumed showed that it was positive for Listeria,” according to the civil complaint.

Dole’s corporate policies do not allow for public comments on pending litigation, according to company spokesman William Goldfield. The status of operations at Dole’s Springfield, OH, salad plant is unknown.

Outbreak crosses border

Christofield is one of 18 people in the U.S. and 11 in Canada who health officials have confirmed as having listeriosis infections from the same strain of the Listeria monocytogenes that inspectors found in packaged salad from the Ohio production facility.

All of the victims required hospitalization. One in the U.S. has died and three in Canada have died.

The Public Health Agency of Canadian has not issued an update on the outbreak since Feb. 2 when officials said they had not definitely determined if the deaths in Canada were caused by the listeria.

In its most recent update on Feb. 25, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the U.S. outbreak victims range in age from 3 to 83 years old.

Georgostathis’s mother is near the top end of that range, at age 77, but her daughter and the attorneys representing her say the woman known as Kiki to friends and family had a much younger person’s lifestyle before eating the contaminated Dole salad.

“She’s a 77-year-old gal who looks and acts like as if she’s about 45. She’s completely independent physically, absolutely vigorous,” said Drew Falkenstein, an attorney with the Seattle-based firm Marler Clark LLP.

“… Christofield lived independently and managed all of her own affairs. She also worked in various capacities voluntarily and professionally, including as a medical and legal translator, and was intimately involved in the local Greek community,” according to the civil complaint.

Additional outbreak victims are likely yet to be identified, according to public health officials, because some patients do not develop symptoms until 70 days after exposure to Listeria monocytogenes.

Also, now that the CDC’s database has matched the outbreak strain with that found in the Dole packaged salads, additional victims could be identified from samples collected from sick people dating back to July 2015.

Dole’s recent track record

This outbreak marks the first Dole recall with illnesses associated since the 2006 E.coli outbreak traced back to Dole spinach. In the 2006 outbreak, the FDA confirmed over 200 illnesses, over 100 hospitalizations, and at least 3 deaths.

“People tend to think of fresh foods as safe from foodborne pathogens,” said Bill Marler, attorney for the plaintiff. “Listeria is typically a pathogen found in processing establishments rather than coming from growing fields. We are interested to know what environmental testing at Dole’s Springfield facility in the months preceding this outbreak showed.”

The CDC has already found epidemiological and laboratory evidence indicating that packaged salads produced at Dole’s facility in Springfield and sold under various brand names are the likely source of this outbreak.

“State and local health departments are interviewing ill people about the foods they may have eaten or other exposures in the month before their illness began,” the CDC reported in January when the confirmed case count in the U.S. stood at 12.

“Of five ill people who were asked about packaged salad, all five reported eating a packaged salad. Two of two ill people who specified the brand of packaged salad eaten reported various varieties of Dole brand packaged salad.”

The CDC, FDA and other public health agencies at state and local levels have been investigating the Listeria outbreak since September. It wasn’t until the routine testing program in Ohio revealed the outbreak strain in a randomly selected Dole packaged salad that officials were able to identify the cause of the outbreak.

“Public health investigators are using the PulseNet system to identify illnesses that may be part of this outbreak. PulseNet is the national subtyping network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories coordinated by CDC,” according to the agency’s website.

“DNA ‘fingerprinting’ is performed on Listeria bacteria isolated from ill people by using techniques called pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and whole genome sequencing (WGS). PulseNet manages a national database of these DNA fingerprints to identify possible outbreaks. WGS gives a more detailed DNA fingerprint than PFGE.”

Editor’s note: Attorney Bill Marler is a founding partner of Marler Clark LLP and is publisher of Food Safety News.

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