Political and legal ramifications of the now nationwide E. coli O157:H7 outbreak came into focus yesterday.  Twenty-eight people from 12 states infected with matching strains of E. coli O157:H7 are at the center of an ongoing investigation by state and federal health officials.

On the political side, the new U.S. Senator from upstate New York is using the largest beef recall of the year for possible E. coli O157 contamination to promote her own legislative solution to eliminate it.

Thumbnail image for hamburger-meat-case-featured.jpgOn the legal front, which yesterday was in the Plymouth County Superior Court for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the first two lawsuits were filed on behalf of child victims of E. coli O157:H7 infections. More are certain to follow.
The lawsuits were filed against two different companies on behalf of two children that became ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections.

One lawsuit was filed against Brockton, MA-based Crocetti’s Oakdale Packing, Inc., doing business as South Shore Meats Inc., and another against Ashville, NY-based Fairbank Farms, Inc. Both companies recalled meat last week after their products were identified as the source of apparently separate E. coli outbreaks in the Northeast.

The Centers for Disease Control and

Prevention (CDC) was continues to investigate a multi-state E. coli

O157:H7 outbreak associated with beef from Fairbank Farms, which continued to work on its recall of 545,699 pounds of

fresh ground beef sold to retailers from North Carolina to Maine.

According to the complaint filed by her parents, 12-year-old Andrea Munro, a Marshfield, MA resident, ate ground beef produced by Fairbank Farms on Sept. 24, 2009 and became ill with an E. coli infection on Sept. 28.  She was hospitalized for six days as a result of her infection. While hospitalized, Andrea tested positive for E. coli O157:H7. 

The second lawsuit was filed by the mother of eleven-year-old Lincoln, RI resident Austin Richmond, who became ill with an E. coli infection on Oct. 17, one day after returning from a class trip to Camp Bournedale, in Plymouth, MA.  

According to the complaint, Austin consumed a hamburger made from ground beef produced by South Shore Meats, Inc. while at Camp Bournedale.  He received medical treatment three separate times before being admitted to the hospital for further care on Oct. 29-30. Austin tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 infection and is still recovering from his injuries. 

Both plaintiffs are represented by Marler Clark, the Seattle law firm dedicated to representing victims of foodborne illness, and by Steven Sabra of the Somerset, MA firm Sabra & Aspden.  

South Shore Meats, Inc. recalled 1,039 pounds of fresh ground beef patties derived from bench trim and mechanically tenderized beef cuts on Oct. 26.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) confirmed a positive test for E. coli O157:H7 in the meat during an epidemiological investigation after some campers became ill.

MDPH, the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDH), and CDC are investigating the second smaller outbreak.

For Sen. Gillibrand the larger outbreak underscores the need for her recently introduced E. coli Eradication Act.

“This is a stark reminder that food is still going straight to our kitchens, and grocery stores without being properly tested to ensure its safety,” Gillibrand said. “It’s spreading too many diseases and costing too many lives.”

Her bill would for the first time mandate E. coli inspection for all ground beef. The measure would require all plants that produce the cuts and trimmings that make ground beef to test their products regularly before it is ground and again after all the components are ground together.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), a 2008 industry-wide sampling of all ground beef produced found that 0.32 percent of ground beef was contaminated with E. coli – nearly 1 in every 300 samples.

Ground beef is especially vulnerable to E. coli contamination because its source material is not from a single cut of meat, rather, it is a compilation of trimmings from many parts, including fat that lies near the surface of possibly contaminated hide.

While some grinders that process ground beef voluntarily test the meat before and after grinding, there is currently no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for E. coli.