Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

E. coli Victims File First Lawsuits

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.

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Provided the average temperature is getting higher, accordingly all forms of germs, viruses, and influenza etc are more likely to multiply.

Some skeptics say the warning against hazards of climate change is overstated, but judging from more frequent and widespread outbreaks of e. coli, salmonella, and bird, swine flu cases endangering human lives and economic recovery seriously, some prompt measures need to be taken, I guess.

John Munsell

The cost to test ALL ground beef batches would put a high number of small plants out of business. These plants grind batches as small as 50 lbs, several times a day. Tests cost me $75 each, including lab fees and FedX next-day charges. This is no problem for big packers, who accumulate 10,000 lbs into one "lot", or $75 per 10,000 lbs. Small plants cannot comply with testing every batch, because their batches are small and frequent. Furthermore, it is inappropriate for small, downline further processing plants to bear the financial responsibility to test meat which was purchased from their source slaughter providers. Since this is a public health issue, I suggest that USDA/FSIS conduct all the tests, and pay for it with taxpayer dollars. This way, the agency can collect all the tests it desires. (Plants can also collect additional samples). However, for the tests to be meaningful, and to allow for corrective actions to prevent recurrences, tests should be conducted on products exiting the big slaughter establishments, and on incoming product arriving at the downline further processing plants. And, lab results from all agency-conducted samples must be posted on the agency's website in real time. The source slaughter plants should be fully responsible for adulterated meat they ship into commerce; it makes no sense for the victimized downstream plants to be liable for problems emanating from their source slaughter providers. Of course, USDA will assiduously oppose increased government testing, because adverse lab results will be a source of intensified embarrassment for the agency for 2 reasons: (1) tracebacks to the slaughter house of origin will reveal that the big slaughter plants continue to ship (under the eyes of USDA) sizeable amounts of adulterated meat into commerce, bearing the official USDA Mark of Inspection, and (2) would reveal that USDA is asleep at the wheel at the big packers, by intentional agency design. Therefore, both the big packers and the agency hope that increased testing will be solely performed by the downstream plants. Then, when adverse lab results occur, both the agency and the big packers can accuse the small plants with utilizing inferior testing protocol, will accuse the small plants of INTRODUCING contaminants during the testing or production activities, will accuse the downstream plants with conspiring to blame an innocent slaughter plant for problems, ad infinitum. As long as testing is done at the downline plant, the agency and the big packers would both be free to levy a plethora of false accusations against the small plants, which are to the USDA a much less formidable litigation opponent than the big plants. Do you perceive the inevitable problems associated with testing finished product at the small downstream plants? When the lab results are adverse, all we know is that the meat is contaminated, but we don't know (to the delight of USDA) WHERE the contaminants were introduced to the meat, and the logical conclusion then is to place all blame on the downstream plant, even though it has no intestines or manure-covered hides (the origin of e.coli & salmonella) on their propery. We must remember that negative test results only prove that the meat in the test has no bacteria, with no assurance that the rest of the meat in the lot is likewise pathogen-free. If you disagree with me, please know that we will lose a high number of small plants, meaning that the large plants will get bigger and bigger, and I don't really think that prospect is pleasant to food safety activists. For many years it was reported that the big 4 packers slaughter 80% of all feedlot steers and heifers. Now, the big 4 packers slaughter 88% of fattened animals. Why is it that although we continue to lose more small plants every year, that the number of outbreaks and recalls increase? It's because we have been mislead into thinking that we can finally get to the root of our outbreaks by TESTING AT SMALL DOWNSTREAM PLANTS. When will America ever learn that if we want to decrease food-borne illnesses, we must identify the SOURCE of contamination, then Force the Source to clean up its act. As long as we place our primary focus on the victimized downstream plants (which is exactly what USDA wants us to do), we continue to insulate the noncompliant source plants from accountability, and Destroy the Destination plants. Fellow Americans, we deserve what we get! As long as we continue to ignorantly endorse the agency's motive to deregulate the large slaughter plants, while hyper-regulating the small destination plants, we deserve every illness and death we experience. We all have a choice to make: if you want to be increasingly dependent on the huge, multi-national slaughter facilities to provide you an ever-increasing amount of your meat, then yes, you should pressure the agency to collect more microbial tests at downstream further processing plants. Time to wake up. John Munsell

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