July 2009

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is issuing guidance for inspectors to begin conducting routine sampling of bench trim for E. coli O157:H7. Bench trim is the fat and meat trimmed from cuts like steaks and roasts as they are prepared in processing plants. Bench trim is normally added to other meat used in ground beef. FSIS inspectors generally perform tests for E. coli O157:H7 in the slaughterhouse on most meat used in ground beef, however, bench trim had not previously been tested by the inspectors, creating a potentially dangerous hole in the government’s food-safety regimen.

According to the New York Times today, Jerold R. Mande, deputy under secretary for food safety at the Agriculture Department, said the government tests of bench trim were to begin in about a month. They are intended to verify testing for E. coli O157:H7 in hamburger that is already being done by plant operators, and many of the operators already test bench trim for the bacterium, he said. According to Mande, on average, the bench trim at an individual plant will be tested two or three times a year, for a total of 1,500 samplings nationwide over 12 months.

Hmm, only 1,500 total samples per year? Is that really sufficient to assure that our hamburger supply is safer? Had I known that the sampling would be that skimpy, I may not have said the below:

Bill Marler, a lawyer in Seattle who specializes in food poisoning cases, said that bench trim was suspected as a source of E. coli O157:H7 in many ground beef recalls. He said the new testing represented an important change. “You’re adding an additional layer of assurance that the ultimate product, the hamburger, is less likely to be contaminated,” he said.

If you are going to test for E. coli O157:H7 and actually be interested in finding it, scientifically based testing should be preformed at several points in the slaughter/manufacturing/grinding production operation. This should include testing for E. coli O157:H7 in finished product and holding it (not shipping it) at the grinding operation until the test results are returned. The testing should be done frequently enough to assure that the production operation is excluding E. coli O157:H7 from finished product.

According to the Quad-City Times, the total of hepatitis A cases in the Quad-City region has grown by one, and the latest patient lives in Henry County. The Rock Island County Health Department has finished a series of free inoculation clinics to provide protection against the illness.

A total of 5,366 doses of either hepatitis A vaccine, or a product called immune globulin, were given out in public clinics run by Rock Island County. All of those receiving free inoculations had visited a McDonald’s restaurant at 400 W. 1st St., in Milan during July 13-14.

Henry County reported an additional documented case of hepatitis A, raising that county’s total to two. There are now at least 26 actual cases in the region, with 15 in Rock Island County, five in Mercer County, one each in Warren and Woodford counties, all in Illinois, as well as two cases in Scott County, Iowa. County officials have said the reported cases are part of the same outbreak and are connected to the Milan McDonald’s.

The incubation period for Hepatitis A can be greater than one month, so the number of ill may well rise over the coming weeks.

Salmonella is a bacterium that causes one of the most common enteric (intestinal) infections in the United States – Salmonellosis. In some states (e.g. Georgia, Maryland), salmonellosis is the most commonly reported cause of enteric disease, and overall it is the second most common bacterial foodborne illness reported (usually slightly less frequent than Campylobacter infection).

The reported incidence of Salmonella illnesses is about 14 cases per each 100,000 persons (MMWR Weekly, 2006), amounting to approximately 30,000 confirmed cases of salmonellosis yearly in the U.S. (CDC, 2005, October 13). In 2005, just over 36,000 cases were reported from public health laboratories across the nation, representing a 12 percent decrease compared with the previous decade, but a 1.5 percent increase over 2004 (CDC, 2007).  Click below to download complaint:

A confidential settlement was reached this morning on behalf of twelve-year-old Rebecca Gosla, who was sickened in a 2007 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to contaminated ground beef that were manufactured by United Foods. Rebecca’s illness stands apart from most E. coli O157:H7 infections, even for children who develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).  She was hospitalized for over a month, suffered weeks of dialysis, and her medical bills were nearly $200,000.

The severity and duration of her HUS-related complications, including the complete failure of kidney function as indicated by the lack of urine-production, makes Rebecca’s prognosis concerning. It is possible that her kidney-function will decline over time to a point that kidney transplantation or maintenance-dialysis will be necessary for her survival.

Rebecca’s Illness was a result of E. coli O157:H7-tainted hamburger that was part of a recall announced on June 3, 2007 by United Food Group, LLC (“United Foods”). 75,000 pounds of ground beef products was recalled after testing conducted by health departments in California and Colorado revealed contamination with E. coli O157:H7. The company reported that the ground beef had been produced on April 20, 2007 and shipped to retail distribution centers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, and Utah. Three days later, on June 6, 2007, United Foods expanded its recall to 370,000 pounds of ground beef. Investigation by the CDC and state health department had uncovered a link between United Foods’ ground beef and illnesses “in several states.” The expanded recall included products produced on April 13, in addition to April 20, 2007. Additional states were now also involved, including Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Washington, and Wyoming.

Three days later, on June 9, 2007, United Foods was again forced to expand its recall, this time dramatically enlarging its scope. More United foods fresh ground beef, not originally included in the recall, had tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 in Arizona. The strain of E. coli O157:H7 isolated was genetically indistinguishable from the strain that had led to the original recall. The newly recalled ground beef tested in the Arizona had been sold under a major grocery store label as opposed to a pre-packaged chub shipped from United Foods. At this time, United expanded its recall to include 5.7 million pounds of its ground beef. The recall now extended to both fresh and frozen ground beef. By this time, United Foods ground beef had been linked to fourteen culture-confirmed E. coli O157:H7 infections in the following states: Arizona (6); California, (3); Colorado (2); Idaho (1); Utah (1); and Wyoming (1).

It is time to prevent the next Rebecca.

A lawsuit stemming from the recent outbreak of Salmonella illnesses was filed today in the Circuit Court for Shelby County, Tennessee against A&R Bar-be-que, LLC. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Memphis father and son by Seattle foodborne illness law firm Marler Clark and by John Day of the Tennessee firm Day & Blair.

Foodborne illnesses reported to the Shelby County Health Department by patrons of the A&R Bar-be-que restaurant at 3701 Hickory Hill Road prompted the Health Department to launch an investigation on July 14. The restaurant closed voluntarily on July 25 and remains closed at this time.

Eric Phillips Sr. bought food at the Hickory Hill A&R Bar-be-que on July 9, 2009. He and his son ate food from the restaurant on July 9 and 10. On Friday, July 10, the 15-year-old began to feel nauseous and ill. His condition worsened over the weekend, and he was taken to the doctor on Tuesday. The doctor instructed the family to keep the boy hydrated, and he was sent home. However, his symptoms increased in severity and he experienced vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea over the next few days. On the following Monday, July 20, his mother took him to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, where he was admitted and diagnosed with Salmonella.

Meanwhile, Eric Phillips Sr. was experiencing similar symptoms over the same period of time. He was eventually admitted to Methodist Germantown Hospital in Memphis.

Both father and son suffered acute kidney failure as a result of their Salmonella infections, requiring extensive medical treatment, including dialysis. They both remain in the hospital.

“The impact on this father and son—and family—will be life-long,” said the family’s attorney, Andy Weisbecker. “No one can change that, but what we can do is to make sure that they have a way to pay for the care they will need.”

Salmonella is a bacterium that causes one of the most common intestinal illnesses in the US: Salmonellosis. It can be present in uncooked or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, or unpasteurized dairy products, as well as other foods contaminated during harvest, production, or packaging. Symptoms can begin 6 to 72 hours from consumption, and include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, nausea, and/or vomiting. Dehydration is a concern, especially with the elderly, very young, or immune compromised.

“Anyone experiencing these symptoms should ask their healthcare providers to culture a stool sample,” continued Weisbecker. “The culture will indicate if Salmonella is present and can assist in determining if the illness is part of a larger outbreak.”

Congressman John D. Dingell gave an impassioned speech today on behalf of HR 2749 – The food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009.  I think it should be renamed the Dingell Bell, errr, Bill.  Anyway, the guy is a stud.

The vote on the Bill should happen soon.  Check out www.foodpoisonjournal.com for the latest.

Congressman John D. Dingell represents Michigan’s 15th Congressional District and is the Chairman Emeritus of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, one of five ‘exclusive’ committees in the U.S. House. During the 111th Congress, he has the lead role in crafting national health insurance legislation that goes before this Committee and the House. On the Committee, he also works on energy and climate change issues, telecommunications and consumer protection policy, and conducts oversight and investigations. Dingell serves the people of Monroe County and parts of Wayne and Washtenaw Counties. His work includes fighting for the working families that keep America’s economy going, including making health care more affordable and accessible to all families and protecting our nation’s natural heritage. On February 11, 2009, Congressman Dingell became the longest serving Member in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Food Safety Bill is being debated on Capitol Hill as I write this post.  Hopefully the human cost of foodborne illness will weigh on our Representatives’ minds as they vote.  The folks below have been involved.  They have visited Washington DC, met with members and have testified.

Lindsey Jennings (below, center) was a healthy 21-year-old starting medical school in the fall of 2008. After eating lettuce contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, she was hospitalized for 11 days. Her medical bills to date total $55,444.49.

In 2006, Ashley Armstrong (below), age 2, became infected with E. coli O157:H7 after eating Dole brand baby spinach. She was hospitalized for 43 days with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). She suffered acute renal failure and pancreatitis and was on dialysis for nearly 4 months. She has a 95 to 100 percent chance of end stage renal disease, and is expected to require a kidney transplant within three to ten years. Ashley will require a combination of kidney dialysis and transplants throughout the rest of her life. Ashley’s medical bills during her acute illness exceeded $200,000, and the value of her projected future medical expenses and future economic losses total between $6 and $7.5 million.

Heather Whybrew (below, in cap and gown) is a 20-year-old college student pursuing a double major in biology and psychology. In 2008, she was hospitalized for 18 days after consuming romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Her medical bills to date are $113.959.04.

Mora Lou Marshall (below) was functionally independent before her Salmonella Tennessee illness, which she contracted as a result of eating Con Agra’s Peter Pan Peanut Butter. As a result of her illness, Mora was hospitalized for more than 30 days at Willis-Knighton Medical Center and Life-Care Hospital. Furthermore, to date, Mora has never able to return home to her family. Since her multiple hospitalizations and illness, Mora Lou Marshall has lived at the Garden Park Nursing Home in Shreveport, Louisiana. Her medical expenses currently total $352,960.

Clifford Tousignant (below, with granddaughter) was a highly decorated Korean War veteran. He received 3 purple hearts and faithfully served his country for over 22 years. Mr. Tousignant became sick with Salmonella Typhimurium in December of 2008, as a result of eating peanut butter products manufactured by King Nut and the Peanut Corporation of America. Mr. Tousignant was hospitalized because of his infection and illness for 6 days at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Brainerd, Minnesota. As a result of his illness, Mr. Tousignant died on January 12, 2009. His medical expenses totaled $42,853.

In 2002, in the middle of the recall of 21,000,000 pounds of E. coli O157:H7-tainted ConAgra beef that sickened 50 Americans and killed one grandmother, I wrote an Op-Ed saying that it was time to “put me out of business.” People generally hate trial lawyers like me, and I said that the best way to get rid of me would be to stop poisoning people with contaminated food. My entire practice would evaporate overnight, and I’m fine with that. In fact, it’s been my goal for 16 years.

Since that outbreak in 2002, millions more have been sickened and permanently disabled by food tainted with Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria, Campylobacter, and other pathogens. Thousands have lost their lives. In that same time period Congress has had more than 20 hearings on food safety – many attended by my clients – but hasn’t enacted comprehensive legislation. Industry has done even less.

There is now a bill up for a vote on the House floor today, HR 2749, which would change that. The bill would greatly strengthen the FDA’s power to regulate 80% of food economy. It unanimously passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee in June. HR 2749 would give the FDA the power to order food recalls and set record-keeping standards for food facilities, as well as and mandate an increased frequency of inspections. What it certainly will do is reduce the enormous number of foodborne illness outbreaks, keep kids out of ICUs and off dialysis, and increase the overall safety of our food.

It is time to step up and pass the first meaningful food safety legislation in 50 years. It’s time for the left to stop making perfect the enemy of good. It’s time for the right to get out of the way of consumer protection in the name of industry protection. It’s time for all of us to acknowledge that ensuring safety in a sprawling, global food system is not free, or without pain. It is past time for every part of the food economy – regardless of size – to become part of the system, to share in the costs of the system, and to promote the safety of the system.

There is a great deal of resistance from smaller food producers, who feel that the bill will unfairly burden them. Here is my promise: if the effects of the bill turn out to be onerous for small food producers – those that sell food to neighbors or at farmer’s markets – I will personally take up the effort to amend the bill.

In the mean time, I urge everyone who cares about safe food to call his or her Congressperson and urge passage of HR 2749. It really is long past time to “put me out of business.”