At least 11 companies so far face lawsuits in relation to this spring’s deadly E. coli outbreak that was linked to romaine lettuce. The most recent victim to pursue compensation is a 23-year-old man who suffered neurological damage, seizures and kidney failure as a result of his infection.

But, three companies whose corporate leadership decided to break the supply chain of silence and reveal the suppliers of their chopped romaine, are off the defendant lists for civil complaints filed by one law firm.

“I voluntarily dismissed Red Lobster, Panera and Texas Roadhouse once they informed me who their romaine suppliers were,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney specializing in food poisoning cases. To date Marler Clark LLP has filed 11 cases for victims.

Five people died in the 36-state outbreak. A total of 210 people were confirmed infected from E. coli bacteria, according to the final outbreak update from the Centers For Disease and Control. Of the 201 victims, 48 percent were hospitalized, including 27 people who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure.

California was hardest hit with 49 sickened. Idaho had 12 people confirmed sick, including 23-year-old Jordan Anglen. In his case filed Monday, Anglen is suing Grasmick Produce Co. Inc.

The Idaho resident has not yet recovered from his E. coli infection, which put him in the hospital from March 29 through April 23. He became sick March 28, three days after he bought and ate a Caesar salad at the food court in the Costco store where he worked, according to the lawsuit filed in the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District of The State of Idaho, in and for the County of Ada.

Anglen’s civil complaint says the implicated salad was made with a salad mix processed by Grasmick Produce Co. Inc., which has offices in Boise and Idaho Falls. It is the largest fresh produce distributor in the state, according to its corporate website. The company reports it received a score of 94 out of 100 on its most recent audit of its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point food safety plan.

Other companies named as defendants in the cases filed by Marler Clark include:

  • CH Robinson;
  • Church Brothers;
  • Freshway Foods;
  • Fresh Unlimited Inc.;
  • GreenGate Fresh;
  • Markon Cooperative;
  • Papa Murphy’s;
  • ProPacific;
  • Reinhart Foodservice; and
  • Willie Itule Produce Inc.

Although state and federal investigators determined early on that the implicated romaine lettuce was grown in the Yuma, AZ, area, they still haven’t  named any growers, processors, distributors or other entities in the supply chain, except one farmer who sent whole head romaine — Yuma-based Harrison Farms. A state prison in Alaska received the whole heads of romaine. Eight prisoners there were infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7.

Except for the romaine from Harrison Farms, all of the other implicated romaine was chopped before being sold, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Both the FDA and CDC began warning the public on April 13 to avoid chopped romaine from the Yuma area. More than four months later, investigators still have not named any growers, processors, distributors, restaurants or other entities related to the outbreak.

Federal and state officials have said repeatedly that a snarl of incomplete and non-existent shipping and receiving records have made it nearly impossible to determine what companies were involved in the romaine field-to-fork supply chain.

In early May FDA collected samples from open-air canals near the growing fields in the Yuma area. In late May the CDC confirmed the outbreak strain of E. coli from those water samples. Neither government nor industry has revealed what growers or processors use water from the canal system.

“We are filing lawsuits, not only to seek compensation for our clients, but to help determine the source of the contamination that has sickened so many,” Marler said Monday night.

“The FDA has done little to show the route of the E. coli O157:H7 contamination from Yuma to consumer meals. Through the litigation process, we will show how this contamination occurred and who was involved. It is only when all this information is gathered and transparently shared that we can learn how to prevent the next E. coli O157:H7 outbreak.”

Editor’s note: Bill Marler is publisher of Food Safety News.

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