The little cube of cheese, picked up from a sample tray at a Phoenix Costco, was probably the smallest bit of food Annette Sutfin nibbled on that day.
But three days later, that cheese tidbit would make the 27-year-old social worker so sick she had to seek emergency medical treatment and spend two days in the hospital.
Sutfin filed suit Monday against Bravo Farms Cheese, the Traver, CA company linked to an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that has sickened 25 people in five Southwestern states. All were Costco customers who were served or sold the raw-milk cheese, which has since been recalled.
The Seattle law firm Marler Clark, food safety attorneys, filed the complaint in U.S. District Court in Arizona on Sutfin’s behalf.
In a phone interview, Sutfin said that on Oct. 15 she stood in line at the Christown Spectrum Mall Costco, along with dozens of others, to taste the samples of cheese and bread being featured in a special promotion. “That’s one of the perks at Costco – the free samples,” she said.
No one mentioned that the Bravo Farms Dutch Style Gouda Cheese handed to her was made from raw milk, she said. Nor did anyone explain there could be risks associated with unpasteurized dairy products.
“I’ve read a lot since, I know about it now,” she said.
On Oct. 18, Sutfin began suffering stomach cramps. By Oct. 21 the pain was knifing through her abdomen with such intensity that she went to the St. Joseph’s Hospital emergency room. She was released to go home but had to return two days later because of extreme pain and bloody diarrhea.
Sutfin was hospitalized until Oct. 25. Altogether, her costly medical treatments included a CT scan, colonoscopy, IV hydration and heavy-duty pain medications.
To her surprise, Sutfin was contacted by the Maricopa County Health Department on Nov. 1 and told she had tested positive for E. coli O157:H7.
“All the things you read about E. coli seem to be about beef,” she said, so as she and health department investigators went over in detail everything she had eaten before she became ill, the bite of free cheese from Costco did not seem very significant.
But days later she learned that the E. coli O157:H7 infecting her — a rare strain never before seen — was a genetic match to the others in the Bravo Farms Gouda Cheese outbreak. And cheese sold to one of the victims was found to be contaminated with the same E. coli strain.
“This cheese was adulterated at some point in the production process, and a lot of people have been injured as a result,” said Sutfin’s attorney, Drew Falkenstein of Marler Clark, in a press release.
Sutfin said she feels better now and has been able to return to work, although she is still not “100 percent.” The painful ordeal, she said, was one she hopes never to experience again.
Said Falkenstein, “Fortunately, Annette appears to be making a good recovery but she has sustained significant medical expenses and it is Bravo Farms’ responsibility to compensate her for her losses.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 other victims of the outbreak also reside in Arizona. Eight are from Colorado, three are from New Mexico, two are from Nevada and one is from California.