January 2014

For those that have not walked the halls of Congress trying to get politicians to pay attention to real issues, you may not appreciate what seven of your fellow citizens did this last week.  However, I have and I do – and, we all should appreciate what these people, my former clients and friends, did for all of us.

Each of them took time out of their lives to travel to Washington D.C. to tell their own or a family member’s story about what can happen to food production when industry gets it wrong and government does not have the power or money for oversight.

So, who were these people that represented us in the halls of power?

  • Kelly was part of a 2008 Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak that sickened several and put her in the hospital for over a week where she developed hemolytic uremic syndrome and incurred over $125,000 in medical bills.  All of this while her husband was fighting in Iraq and she had responsibility for two small children.
  • Paul is the son of his namesake Paul Sr. Paul Sr. was an active, spry 92-year-old, who loved to golf and loved his wife Rosellen.  Paul Sr. earned two purple hearts in WWII and died after eating a US grown cantaloupe tainted with Listeria in 2011.  He died an agonizing death two months after eating the tainted fruit after incurring nearly $200,000 in medical expenses.  Paul Sr. was one of 33 who died in the largest foodborne illness death toll in the US in over 50 years.
  • Angela is the mother of Mariah and Celia who both suffered Salmonella infections in 2012 in yet another cantaloupe outbreak – this time from Indiana.  Although their medical bills were only $25,000, the children’s’ illnesses took a toll on the entire family.
  • Merrill was part of a nationwide Listeria outbreak linked to imported cheese.  Eventually, the numbers of ill would hit 22 with four deaths, including a baby.  Merrill was lucky to survive, but spent weeks in the hospital, days in ICU and incurred $60,000 in medical expenses.
  • Gabrielle has been an advocate on behalf of her son Chris who was one hundreds sickened – including nine reported deaths – in the 2009 Peanut Corporation of America Salmonella outbreak.
  • Peter is the male version of Gabrielle.  Peter, a Portland cop was outraged when he leaned that Salmonella-tainted peanut butter crackers that he and his wife had been feeding his son sickened his three-year-old son.
  • Ken is the son-in-law of Ruby who needlessly died after eating E. coli-tainted spinach in the 2006 outbreak that sickened over 200 and killed five.  Although 81-years-old at the time of her death, she was active and healthy.   Ruby’s medical bills neared $100,000 as she struggled through the very painful last days of her life.

Although Kelly, Paul, Angela, Merrill, Gabrielle, Peter and Ken are unique in the fact that they have turned tragedy in to action, they are not unique in the fact that they truly represent what goes on every day in the US.  The CDC says that 48,000,000 of us become sick each year do to the food that we eat and 125,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.  This should be unacceptable to our politicians; it should be unacceptable to all of us.

Thankfully, we have Kelly, Paul, Angela, Merrill, Gabrielle, Peter and Ken representing us.  We all owe them a thank you.

The CDC reports a total of 17 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Stanley were reported from three states.  Most of the ill people were reported from California (88%). The number of ill persons identified in each state was as follows: California (15), Nevada (1), and Wyoming (1).  20% of ill persons were hospitalized. No deaths were reported.

Collaborative investigative efforts of state, local, and federal public health and regulatory agencies indicated that raw cashew cheese produced by The Cultured Kitchen of West Sacramento, California was the source of this outbreak.  Cashew cheese is a non-dairy product made from raw cashews and other ingredients.  On December 31, 2013, The Cultured Kitchen voluntarily recalled its raw cashew cheese due to a risk of contamination with Salmonella.

The recall affected all six varieties of raw cashew cheese produced by The Cultured Kitchen with an expiration date of April 19, 2014 or earlier.  Photos of the recalled products are available  [PDF – 888 KB].

Gabrielle Meunier is a resident of South Burlington, whose 7-year-old son became ill from a Salmonella infection in 2008.  She is in Washington DC this week to meet with members of the Vermont delegation about the Food Safety Modernization Act.  She spoke with Vermont Edition about the meeting, and her son’s experience with a food borne illness.

Oregonian reporter Lynne Terry reports about a Portland cop turned advocate is back in the U.S. capital this week, urging Congress to support funding for a crackdown on food safety.  Officer Peter Hurley, who’s taking vacation time from his job in Central Precinct, has met with two Oregon lawmakers, and has another meeting on Thursday.  His son became sick in the same outbreak that sickened Ms. Meunier’s son.

I think many who might read my blog think I get a bunch of money for my clients and then they go on their merry way – not so – they are still out try to help protect all of us.  I am very proud and honored.

Food Safety News reports that two Oregonians have tested positive for a rare strain of Salmonella known as Salmonella overschie, according to the Oregon Health Authority Public Health Division.

The first patient was a 28-year-old Coos County woman who fell ill in December. The second case was a minor in Lane County, which is separated from Coos County by Douglas County.

The two patients developed their symptoms eight days apart. The state health department investigated the possible source of contamination, but couldn’t determine one before ending the investigation.

Authorities say the strain has never before been reported in Oregon. Only 23 cases of Salmonella overschie were detected in the U.S. between 1995 and 2005, according to health officials.

No new cases have surfaced since December.

Salmonella overschie has been known of since at least 1961, when it was isolated from a patient in the Netherlands.

Food Safety News reports, that a federal judge on Tuesday sentenced the two owners of the cantaloupe farm tied to a deadly Listeria outbreak in 2011 to five years probation, six months home detention, and $150,000 each in restitution fees to victims.

Brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen owned Jensen Farms in Colorado, where they grew the cantaloupes that sickened at least 147 people with Listeria and killed more than 30, making it one of the deadliest foodborne illness outbreaks in U.S. history.

The case has been a landmark in foodborne illness litigation, becoming one of the first instances in which food producers faced criminal charges for their contaminated food. While some felt that the Jensens should have received jail time for the amount of damage done to victims and their families, others – including prosecutors – saw probation as more appropriate given that there was no malicious intent behind the outbreak.

The brothers were facing a maximum of six years in jail and $1.5 million each in fines on six counts of introducing contaminated food into interstate commerce. Government prosecutors had suggested the lower sentence of five years probation earlier this month.

The FDA and state and local officials investigated a case of tetrodotoxin poisoning in Fairfax County, Virginia which is believed to be linked to the consumption of imported puffer fish that was not processed and prepared by specially trained and certified fish cutters as part of an agreement between the U.S. and Japan.  The liver, gonads (ovaries and testes), intestines, and skin of some puffer fish contain the toxins tetrodotoxin and/or saxitoxin.

According to Fairfax County Health Department authorities, the individual who developed tetrodotoxin poisoning received the puffer fish in a package from relatives in South Korea, rather than purchasing it from a restaurant or other retail outlet in the United States.

Consumers should only eat puffer fish (also known as fugu, bok, blowfish, globefish, swellfish, balloonfish, or sea squab) from two known safe sources.

The safe sources are:

  1. Imported puffer fish that have been processed and prepared by specially trained and certified fish cutters in the city of Shimonoseki, Japan, and
  2. Puffer fish caught in the mid-Atlantic coastal waters of the United States, typically between Virginia and New York. Puffer fish from all other sources potentially contain deadly toxins and therefore are not considered safe.

Symptoms resulting from ingesting tetrodotoxin and/or saxitoxin include tingling of the lips and mouth, followed by dizziness, tingling in the extremities, problems with speaking, balance, muscle weakness and paralysis, vomiting, and diarrhea. These symptoms can begin anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours after eating the toxic fish. In extreme cases death can result from respiratory paralysis.

According to a press release from the American Society for Microbiology, researchers from Weill Cornell Medical College have added to the growing body of evidence that multiple sclerosis may be triggered by a toxin produced by common foodborne bacteria. The presented their research at the 2014 ASM Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system characterized by blood brain (BBB) permeability and demyelination, a process in which the insulating myelin sheaths of neurons are damaged.   The disease is thought to be triggered in a genetically susceptible individual by a combination of one or more environmental factors. The environmental trigger of MS, however, is still unknown.  According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the condition affects approximately 400,000 Americans and is, with the exception of trauma, the most frequent cause of neurological disability beginning in early to middle adulthood.

“We provide evidence that supports epsilon toxin’s ability to cause BBB permeability and show that epsilon toxin kills the brain’s myelin producing cells, oligodendrocytes; the same cells that die in MS lesions,” says Jennifer Linden of Weill Cornell Medical College, who presented the research.  “We also show that epsilon toxin targets other cells types associated with MS inflammation such as the retinal vascular and meningeal cells.  Epsilon toxin may be responsible for triggering MS.”

Epsilon toxin is produced by certain strains of Clostridium perfringens, a spore-forming bacterium that is one of the most common causes of foodborne illness in the United States. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that non-epsilon toxin producing C. perfringens strains  cause nearly a million cases of foodborne illness each year.

Previous studies have suggested that C. perfringens, and in particular epsilon toxin, may play a role in triggering MS.  Late last year Linden and her colleagues discovered C. perfringens type B (a strain that is not known to infect humans and produces the epsilon toxin) in a 21-year-old woman who was experiencing a flare-up of her MS. To further test their hypothesis Linden and her colleagues studied the behavior of the toxin in mice, specifically which cells it targeted.

They discovered that the toxin did target the brain cells associated with MS pathology.  But that was not all they found.

“Originally, we only thought that epsilon toxin would target the brain endothelium cells and oligodendrocytes; we just happened to notice that it also bound to and killed meningeal cells.  This was exciting because it provides a possible explanation for meningeal inflammation and subpial cortical lesions exclusively observed in MS patients, but not fully understood,” says Linden.

They also tested samples of local foods for the presence of C. perfringens and the toxin gene.  Of the 37 food samples, 13.5% were positive for bacteria and 2.7% were positive for the epsilon toxin gene.

Linden says these findings are important, because if it can be confirmed that epsilon toxin is indeed a trigger of MS, development of a neutralizing antibody or vaccine directed against epsilon toxin might stop the progression of the disease or prevent it from even developing.

I was in South Africa in October for a food safety conference – clearly, someone did not attend.

South African News 24 reports that Salmonella was the likely cause of an outbreak in Limpopo earlier this week where 42 people were hospitalized.  The outbreak was reported on Monday by the provincial diseases outbreak response team, which believed the initial cause was contaminated food or water at Mokopane Lodge.  42 cases that were reported and treated at Voortrekker Hospital, nine were critical while others were discharged immediately.

I better check the flights.  Or, perhaps they need to watch the video.

Nine plaintiffs who claim they fell ill with Salmonella infections after eating contaminated food purchased from a Houston-area Iguana Joe’s were added to a lawsuit against the restaurant late last week.

The original lawsuit was filed last July by Seattle-based Marler Clark and Houston attorney John Ramsey on behalf of a couple who allege their child fell ill with a Salmonella infection during an outbreak that originated at the restaurant.  According to the complaint, Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services linked at least a dozen Salmonella cases to Iguana Joe’s in June of 2013.  The public health agency allegedly found multiple violations at the restaurant during its Salmonella outbreak investigation.

“This outbreak didn’t just impact my clients.  It impacted the entire Atascocita community,” said attorney William Marler, noting that “Families sickened with food poisoning from Iguana Joe’s” was number six on the Atascocita Observer’s list of Top Ten Stories of 2013.

Plaintiffs allege that food product sold by Iguana Joe’s was defective and unreasonably dangerous and that it caused their illnesses and damages.  In the complaint, they ask the Court to compensate them for physical pain and suffering, mental anguish, medical expenses, lost wages and earning capacity and for physical impairment.

“Restaurants owe a duty to their customers to serve safe food, period.” Marler continued.  “We plan to prove that Iguana Joe’s failed to fulfill this duty and injured my clients because of it.”

Michelle Anderson with mlive.com reports that the final report on the Salmonella outbreak that affected at least 32 residents in Muskegon and Ottawa counties last year was published last week.

The 68-page document (attached) released by Public Health-Muskegon County formed nine hypotheses and suggested raw eggs, cross contamination or poor food handling were likely the cause of the outbreak that affected patrons and employees at Pints & Quarts Pub and Grill and C.F. Prime Chophouse and Wine Bar between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2.

Investigators said the restaurants’ salads — including those with grilled chicken — and Pints & Quarts’ Thai Chicken Lettuce Wraps appetizer were strongly associated with the illness.   The final report noted that raw eggs were used in the restaurants’ original Caesar and Citrus salad dressings and its béarnaise sauce, a classic French condiment made with butter and spices.

The report’s conclusion found that it was unlikely that Salmonella with the same DNA fingerprint came in “from various farms or processors” and said it was more likely that contamination happened in the facility and at the pantry station.