The Romaine lettuce 2008 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in Pierce and Thurston Counties, Washington, occurred against the backdrop of an awakened national consciousness about the safety of our nation’s food supply—particularly, its fresh produce. The September 2006 spinach outbreak, that sickened 205, killing 5, put the subject of produce safety on the map for everybody, much as it should have for every grower and manufacturer in the country. Nonetheless, outbreaks have continued.
In this case, the Washington State Department of Health learned of the developing outbreak on May 22, 2008 from the Tacoma-Pierce County and Thurston County Health Departments. By the end of the week of May 26, nine laboratory-confirmed cases and one epidemiologically linked case had been reported. WSDOH testing determined that all nine lab-confirmed cases had indistinguishable PFGE patterns. Investigators with the Pierce and Thurston County health departments soon began to interview the confirmed and epidemiologically linked cases to determine whether there was a common food exposure. These interviews revealed three clusters of illness: three cases at Pacific Lutheran University; three cases from a banquet at La Quinta Inn in Tacoma; and four illnesses amongst students in the Olympia School District. Further, investigators learned from the food histories of all cases that the only food consumed by all cases was Romaine lettuce.
We represented two young women. One a college freshman recently recovered from surgery due to the removal of a brain tumor. Due to the E. coli O157:H7 infection, she spent weeks in the hospital incurring over $100,000 in medical expenses. The other client, a mother of two young children, whose husband at the time of her E. coli O157:H7 infection, was serving our country in Iraq. She too was hospitalized for weeks. She developed a life threatening a complication, Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, and incurred nearly $150,000 in medical expenses.
If Senator Coburn gets his way on food safety, I will continue to be as busy as ever. And, businesses will continue to suffer from the blunt, and expensive, instrument of social change – civil litigation. I am not sure these two women would agree with Senator Coburn that, “we’ve got the safest food in the world.” However, I hope they think we have, “the best legal system in the world!”