October 2011

Screen Shot 2011-10-31 at 8.35.09 PM.pngKaren Robinson-Jacobs reports in the morning that the adult children of an 89-year-old Dallas County woman who died after eating cantaloupe allegedly tainted with Listeria, filed suit late last week against the grower and distributor in State District court in Dallas.

Russell Jones and Terri Blackmon, the children of Marie Jones, filed suit in connection with a Listeria outbreak that surfaced in September and so far has sickened at least 133 and been associated with 28 deaths. Texas was one of the hardest hit states with 18 reported illnesses.

Jones and Blackmon, also Dallas County residents, say that producer Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo., and Frontera Produce Ltd. of Edinburg, Texas, which allegedly shipped the tainted cantaloupe, committed negligence and breached an implied warranty….

Eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes can cause Listeriosis, a serious illness that can lead to nausea and diarrhea. In immune-deficient individuals, Listeria can invade the central nervous system, causing meningitis and/or a brain infection.

“It’s a very painful way of dying,” said attorney Bill Marler who has filed eight lawsuits related to the outbreak, including the Jones suit. “We’re all going to die, but you shouldn’t die from eating cantaloupe.”

Marler said this outbreak has the potential to become the most deadly U.S. foodborne illness outbreak on record.

Read the whole story in the Dallas paper in the morning.

Screen Shot 2011-10-31 at 3.51.43 PM.pngAccording to news repots, items purchased at Schnucks salad bars appear to be the source of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that has thirty-three region wide, according to a preliminary study conducted by the St. Louis County Health Department. There are reports that the stores involved are located in downtown St. Louis, High Ridge, Ballwin, and Ladue.

“The majority of the cases so far, people went to different Schnucks stores and purchased items off their salad bars,” said St. Louis County health department spokesman John Shelton.

The latest numbers show 33 cases region wide, including 26 in St. Louis County. No one has died and Shelton says none of the illnesses appears to be life threatening.

Investigators with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta are helping with the investigation. The patients range in age from one year old to 94, Shelton said.

Alan Bavley of the Kansas City Star did a great job putting a human face on a now nationwide listeria cantaloupe outbreak that has sickened 133 while killing 28.  His story – “Listeria traced to cantaloupe hits home for one KC family,” ran this morning.  Here is part:

GxqUU.Em.81.jpgPaul Schwarz used to eat a lot of cantaloupe, but not anymore.

At least some of the melons Schwarz enjoyed for breakfast this summer came from Jensen Farms, the Colorado grower whose cantaloupe contaminated with listeria bacteria have been responsible for the nation’s deadliest food-borne disease outbreak in 26 years.

The 92-year-old Kansas City man was knocked off his feet by a listeria infection called listeriosis and spent five weeks in the hospital. Now he’s recovering in a nursing home. And he’s become the first area resident with listeriosis to sue Jensen Farms. The suit has been filed in federal court.

“It’s just like he has brain trauma,” said his son, also Paul Schwarz. “His speech, enunciating is difficult. He’s bed- and wheelchair-bound. He needed to have his food cut into small pieces.”

We need more stories like this to drive home the point that these people our all of our friends and families.  This can happen to you or a loved one as easy as it happened to the Schwarz family.  And it did not have to happen:

… when the FDA inspected Jensen Farms in September, it told a different story. While there were no signs of listeria in the growing fields, the bacteria were found throughout the processing and storage areas.

Poor drainage allowed water to pool under machinery. Inspectors found listeria there.

The used washing and drying equipment the company installed in July was not easy to clean and had built-up dirt and residue from the cantaloupe. Inspectors found listeria there, as well.

FDA inspectors also found that discarded cantaloupe were hauled to a cattle operation. The truck was parked next to the packing plant. Listeria on workers or equipment may have been carried into the plant from the truck, the FDA suggested.

And after the cantaloupe were harvested and washed, they went straight into storage without being pre-cooled. The fruit, still warm with field heat, and with their rinds wet from washing, created an ideal environment for listeria to grow, the FDA said.

“The FDA report reads like an instruction manual on how not to raise cantaloupe,” said Drew Falkenstein, a lawyer with Marler Clark, the Seattle law firm representing Schwarz. “Once bacteria were introduced, it was an accident waiting to happen.”

But, an accident that could have been avoided.

The-Plaza-Hotel.jpgI am still in New York (which by the way got hit with a freak October snowstorm – that included thunder and lightening), after being on a food safety panel at Grand Central Station as part of Consumer Report’s 75th anniversary on Friday. After the panel, I got to meet with the son of a woman who recently died from Listeria in Louisiana (yes, from cantaloupe) and the sister and mother of a young woman who nearly died 15 years ago from eating an E. coli-tainted salad (I offered the sister a summer internship).

I also got to spend two hours on Saturday with graduate students in the Columbia School of Journalism downloading story ideas and sources for their upcoming year of food safety reporting.

Earlier in the week (Thursday) I sat down in the cafeteria of a Denver hospital with reporters Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown, after I visited a family who is still keeping vigil over a husband and father left in a coma from eating cantaloupe, and after visiting a man who just lost his wife of over 50 years, who too died from eating the Colorado-grown fruit, for the Post’s article – “Producers seldom hear of food-safety issues from their private auditors.” The article is well worth the read – especially for auditors and those who rely on them. My favorite quote this time does not come from me:

“It’s a system (audits) that doesn’t appreciate truth-telling, even when human lives are at stake,” said Amanda Hitt, director of the Food Integrity Campaign at the Government Accountability Project in Washington, D.C.

Several weeks ago I had lunch (we went Dutch) with Seattle Times reporter Maureen O’Hagan. For years I have been scaring the hell out of her with stories of the lack of safety of our food supply. I think she gets it (well almost – she still is not using a thermometer) as you can tell from the headline – “What you eat can kill you if you don’t watch out.” This time, I did enjoy my quote:

Screen Shot 2011-10-30 at 2.22.36 PM.pngBut if positive salmonella tests (talking about the recent Cargill Turkey Outbreak) don’t force a company to take food off the market, what does?

Marler is glib. “Bodies,” he says. He means numbers of people who get sick or die, and whose illness can be inarguably tied, via DNA, to the tainted food.

Interesting, it was the human stories that I told the audience at Grand Central (which included some from “Occupy Wall Street” who were getting out of the cold) and the Columbia students to focus on. Food Safety will not change unless those responsible for it – from “Farm to Table” – from the Corporate Board Room to the President’s desk – really know what it is like to watch you father and husband lay in a coma, or your wife or mother die, from eating a damn cantaloupe.

Sadly, it’s the bodies.

And, a picture to the right at the other end of the island – 99% away.

89-yearold Marie Jones regularly purchased and consumed cantaloupe in the weeks prior to her illness. By the weekend of September 10, Ms. Jones developed signs of a Listeria infection, including a severe headache and gastrointestinal symptoms, which worsened over the ensuing days. Late on September 12, she was admitted to Baylor University Medical Center and transferred to the intensive care unit where it was determined that her illness was caused by a Listeria infection and was affecting her entire body. Over the next ten days Ms. Jones’ condition worsened until she ultimately succumbed to her illness on September 23. The complaint further states that the Dallas County Health Department confirmed the strain that caused Ms. Jones’ Listeria illness was the same as the one implicated in the multi-state Listeria outbreak linked to the defendants’ products.

JensenFronteracantaloupes.jpgLast week I told The Produce News:

Bill Marler, a prominent Seattle-based attorney known for his involvement in food-safety litigation, has filed seven lawsuits and currently represents at least two-dozen individuals or families of people who have become sick or have died because of the outbreak.

Mr. Marler told The Produce News that at the end of the day, this will be one of the larger food-safety settlements ever, and certainly will be the largest in the fresh produce industry.

He estimated that settlements will reach $125 million to $150 million, and he speculated that many companies along the supply chain will have to get involved to settle these cases or will be drawn into court trials.

Mr. Marler said that Jensen Farms is clearly culpable, but he added that the distributor of the cantaloupes as well as retailers and the third-party auditor could all be brought into the case.

The CDC reports a total of 133 persons infected with any of the four outbreak-associated strains of Listeria monocytogenes have been reported to CDC from 26 states.  Twenty-eight deaths have been reported. In addition, one woman pregnant at the time of illness had a miscarriage.  Those numbers will rise over the next weeks as additional people become sick or even die.  And, of course, there will be many uncounted deaths and miscarriages that are not linked because of any laboratory confirmation.

Consider the costs of 133 ill with 29 dead (including miscarriage).  Think of the medical expenses in the past, and for those that survive, the cost of future care.  Some of the victims were still actively working and have lost wages and may still in the future.  Also think of the 29 lost before their time.  And, think of the suffering of the ill and of the families who helplessly watched their spouse or family member suffer or die.

Yes, Jensen Farms as the grower/processor and Frontera as the Wholesaler/Shipper will necessarily need to be responsible for what happened.  Yet, so will the grocery stores that consumers relied on to not sell them cantaloupe that could kill them.  Andy, yes, it is time for the third-party auditor to be held responsible for the audit that allowed the tainted cantaloupe to move from “farm to table.”

4ea95e724b982.preview-300.jpgAccording to the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, Federal health investigators from the CDC landed in St. Louis Friday to help determine the source and scope of the E. coli outbreak that has so far sickened 23 people across the region.

Local hospitals started reporting E. coli infections on Monday in St. Louis and St. Louis, Jefferson, St. Charles and St. Clair counties.

St. Louis County health officials confirmed that the source of the E. coli O157 strain was food-borne, and there were signs that a local grocery chain may be involved. Schnucks stores across the region voluntarily replaced or removed some lettuce in salad bars, a company spokeswoman said.

Three of the infected people who have been contacted by the Post-Dispatch said they had recently eaten at salad bars from Schnucks stores in downtown St. Louis, Ladue and High Ridge.

Lindsay Schuessler, 25, has been hospitalized at Mercy since Saturday. Doctors there confirmed Schuessler was infected with the E. coli bacteria, her father said. County health officials visited Schuessler’s home in University City and removed some produce including strawberries that she had purchased at Schnucks, Rick Schuessler said.

James Bell, of Florissant, said his 23-year-old daughter, Jasmine, has been hospitalized since Saturday with what hospital and health officials told him was a confirmed E. coli case. Jasmine Bell started feeling sick during the middle of last week. Bell said his daughter ate salads twice last week that she bought at the Schnucks Culinaria store in downtown St. Louis. He said he thinks both of the salads were prepackaged, purchased from the salad and deli section of the store.

Screen Shot 2011-10-28 at  AM.pngI received this announcement from LexisNexis: 

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ecoli-.jpgToday St. Louis Missouri Health officials continue to search for the source of a St. Louis-area E. coli outbreak that has now sickened 22 people. Nine people ranging in age from 4 to 94 have been hospitalized. KMOX Radio reports that the illnesses are not believed to be life-threatening.

While in North Carolina officials are investigating up to 21 possible cases of E. coli affecting people in six counties, with four children still hospitalized because of the ailment. State Epidemiologist Megan Davies said Thursday that nine cases have been confirmed, and 12 more are being evaluated.

Most of the cases come from Wake County, which has seven confirmed and four suspected. Sampson County has six, and there are one each in Durham, Johnston, Franklin and Cleveland counties. Eight of the nine confirmed cases occurred in people who attended the N.C. State Fair, but Davies says investigators don’t know yet how many of the suspected cases were at the event.

usmap.gifOver the last month the focus in the outbreak world has been the devastation brought by Listeria – tainted cantaloupe and now Salmonella – tainted pine nuts. However, E. coli O157:H7 seems to have a hold on at least for states.

Michigan – Health officials say E. coli bacteria have sickened two children and one adult from mid-Michigan. The Mid-Michigan District Health Department said in a statement Wednesday that both children from the Maple Rapids area have been hospitalized. The health department said a third person from the area about 30 miles northwest of Lansing was recovering from an E. coli infection.

Missouri – The St. Louis County Department of Health says it is investigating the source of E. coli that has sickened at least 14 people this week. A press release did not state when or where the first case was reported. More information was expected to be available Thursday.

North Carolina – Three children are in hospital intensive care units after an outbreak of a potentially deadly type of food poisoning that could be linked to the North Carolina State Fair. The Wake County health department said Wednesday that seven children and two adults have been infected with E. coli bacteria. Eight of the nine victims attended the state fair that ended last weekend.

Wisconsin – Wisconsin’s Green County Health Department and the state Division of Public Health identified four Abe Lincoln Elementary School students infected with the same strain of E. coli O157:H7 responsible for 9 illnesses and one death between mid-August and mid-September. No source has been identified for either the four recent cases or the nine earlier illnesses.