As Dawn Withers of the Salinas Californian wrote this morning, “E. coli cases at talk stage,” I am actually in Salt Lake City meeting with representatives from Dole, Natural Selection Foods and Mission Organic and their insurers to talk about resolving several cases involving Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. As Dawn wrote:

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney handling the cases of people made ill from tainted spinach, said 51 cases have been settled and another 21 are pending. Six will be the focus of the negotiations this week, he said Wednesday.

“We’ve been working through them, and it hasn’t been without controversy,” Marler said.
Marler said the negotiations for monetary compensation, which are confidential, are complex because some his clients face kidney transplants in the future and lifelong complications from kidney damage caused by the bacteria in the tainted spinach.

“We’re trying to figure out what the right amount of money is to compensate a 4-year-old who will lose her kidneys,” he said.

We in fact were able to resolve all six of the cases today in spite of much gnashing of teeth.  I had a quick chat today with the FOODSNARK about Spinach, E. coli and life in general.

Over 200 sickened and at least 4 deaths are attributed to eating E. coli contaminated spinach.  Now we are seeing the results as consumers turn away from a product that the Spinach/Lettuce industry could have made safer.

Salad plant will close after spinach scare; 200 out of job
(Associated Press)

A northern Indiana salad-processing plant with about 200 workers is being closed because of what its owner said is a troubled food industry after the nationwide spinach recall stemming from an E. coli outbreak.

Spinach recall tips broker into Chapter 11 (Orlando Sentinel)

A small Brevard County produce broker that is the chief supplier of bagged spinach to the U.S. military has filed for bankruptcy protection, claiming the recent massive recall of the leafy green crippled its business.

Some other interesting facts:

Three-quarters of all domestically grown spinach is harvested in California. Last year’s spinach crop in California was valued at $258.3 million. The spinach recall has cost farmers and processors up to $50 million in lost revenue, the Produce Marketing Association estimates. That figure does not include losses to brokers.

This article at the Monterey Herald gives a comprehensive assessment on the problems faced by the lettuce and spinach industry of Salinas over the next year – a solution needs to be found.

From the article:

Bill Marler, a partner in the Seattle law firm Marler Clark, who has represented victims in high-profile foodborne illness lawsuits against Odwalla and Jack in the Box, said he doesn’t think San Juan Bautista-based Natural Selection has enough insurance to cover victims’ claims, which he estimates at more than $100 million.

The result, Marler said, is that Dole — for whom Natural Selection processed and packaged spinach and whose bagged spinach has been the only brand to which investigators have traced the E. coli strain — will eventually have to cover some claims.

"The problem for Natural Selection," he said, "is for every dollar Dole pays, they are going to want it out of Natural Selection’s hide."

To protect themselves from paying back Dole, Marler predicts that Natural Selection — parent company of Earthbound Farm, the largest grower-shipper of organic produce in the country — will need to file for bankruptcy.

Listen to this story…

NPR – News & Notes, October 13, 2006

Spinach, tainted by E. coli bacteria, has reportedly made about 200 people in two dozen states sick. At least three people are said to have died from the outbreak. Lawmakers and advocates are demanding federal authorities do more to eliminate the contamination. Farai Chideya talks to William Marler, a Seattle attorney representing more than 90 people affected by the outbreak and Marler’s client Ken Costello who recently lost his mother-in-law to E. coli poisoning.

Cow PieFDA Statement on Foodborne E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak in Spinach

Positive Test Results

FDA and the State of California announced today that test results from the field investigation of the outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in spinach are positive for E. coli O157:H7.  Samples of cattle feces on one of the implicated ranches tested positive based on matching genetic fingerprints for the same strain of E. coli that sickened 199 people.   The trace back investigation has narrowed to four implicated fields on four ranches.  The outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 from cattle feces was identified on one of these four ranches.

Hopefully, no one will be surprised by this finding – testing of cattle finds E. coli O157:H7 in as much as 28% of ALL cattle depending on the time of year the test is run.  In my trip to Salinas last week, I was a bit shocked at how close (and how many) cows were to a “ready-to-eat” product like spinach and lettuce.

More thoughts on yesterday’s hearing:

I have concerns despite the 4 deaths and over 200 illnesses that some politicians may simply fiddle while more spinach and lettuce is grown and more customers are sickened and more businesses go bankrupt (watch for that next).  Yesterday’s hearing was more telling by who did not attend – most of the committee, DOLE, Natural Selection (under FBI investigation), the FDA and the CDC.  Frankly, I don’t think those that chose to ignore in the need for intervention have a plan to save customers or themselves.  See the story in the LA Times by Rong-Gong Lin II, Times Staff Writer

A couple of telling quotes:

  • Of the 20 lettuce or spinach outbreaks linked to a virulent and potentially deadly strain of E. coli since 1995, nine have been traced to the Salinas Valley area, one of the nation’s largest producers of the leafy greens.
  • He (Senator Florez) also criticized health officials for not completing an investigation of an E. coli outbreak linked to Salinas Valley lettuce in 2005 that sickened at least 34 people in Minnesota.
  • "With 45 inspectors, 5,500 processing plants and 100,000 farms, that seems to be putting us well behind where we should be," said Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) at a legislative oversight meeting. "I don’t think government is doing its job in this case."
  • "I think the time for industry-sponsored approaches are over," said Florez, chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Governmental Organization. "I think consumers are looking for stronger measures than the voluntary measures that have produced 20 of these outbreaks. And we don’t want to see the 21st."

The hearing was attended by only two senators of the nine-member committee — Florez and Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata).  One of the seven "fiddlers" on the committee seemed to make it clear that he rather simply wait for more bodies to be counted:

  • The committee’s vice chairman, Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Salinas), declared the hearing a "witch-hunt" and premature.
  • "For any legislator to start proposing legislation without having an investigation concluded, I just think it’s premature and it’s unproductive," Denham said.

Why do these guys get paid?

As Tim Hay of the San Mateo County Times reported today, a multinational food company and a Salinas vegetable farm have been ordered to pay an undisclosed amount to an elderly woman who was sickened in an outbreak of E. coli in a local retirement home, as well the son of a woman who died after eating the same tainted spinach in October 2003.
Marler Clark sued Sodexho USA and River Ranch Fresh Foods after an outbreak of the food-borne illness sickened at least 16 people and caused the deaths of two others at the Sequoias Portola Valley retirement community.
County health officials said the outbreak was most likely caused by pre-packaged spinach that Sodexho bought from River Ranch and served at the 315-bed home.
Marler Clark represented Keith McWalter, whose 85-year-old mother, Alice McWalter, died when the E. coli caused kidney failure. Mrs. McWalter was hospitalized on Oct. 14, and suffered 12 days of fever and nausea before she died.
The other Marler Clark client was Sequoias resident Sarah Ish. She was hospitalized with severe nausea during the outbreak, but pulled through.

As Joshua L. Kwan reported in his San Jose Mercury News story Woman’s son sues over E. coli death, the son of an 85-year-old woman who died last year during an E. coli outbreak at a Portola Valley nursing home has sued the food service company that supplied contaminated spinach to the home.

”The wrong is that someone got sick,” said Bill Marler, an attorney for McWalter’s family. ”And it came from food that these people served,” he said about Sodexho. ”In a sense, it’s case closed.”

Keith McWalter said his mother complained of abdominal pain when he visited her Oct. 12. She was hospitalized Oct. 10, but residents weren’t warned of a possible E. coli outbreak until Oct. 13. Matsumoto said the home did not receive test results indicating an E. coli problem until Oct. 13.

As Joshua L. Kwan reported in his San Jose Mercury News story Woman’s son sues over E. coli death, the son of an 85-year-old woman who died last year during an E. coli outbreak at a Portola Valley nursing home has sued the food service company that supplied contaminated spinach to the home.

”The wrong is that someone got sick,” said Bill Marler, an attorney for McWalter’s family. ”And it came from food that these people served,” he said about Sodexho. ”In a sense, it’s case closed.”

Keith McWalter said his mother complained of abdominal pain when he visited her Oct. 12. She was hospitalized Oct. 10, but residents weren’t warned of a possible E. coli outbreak until Oct. 13. Matsumoto said the home did not receive test results indicating an E. coli problem until Oct. 13.

As Tim Hay of the San Mateo County Times reported in his story Firm sued over E. coli outbreak, my firm has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the son of 85-year-old Alice McWalter, one of at least 16 Sequoias Portola Valley residents and workers sickened with E. coli from eating spinach purchased and served by Sodexho. Alice McWalter was hospitalized for stomach pains on Oct. 14, and suffered through 12 days of fever, nausea and seizures before she died of kidney failure.

“That [they] died after eating contaminated spinach is particularly disturbing,” attorney Bill Marler said in a prepared statement. “The whole state of California was, or should have been, paying special attention to food safety — especially fresh produce safety — at the time of this outbreak, since an outbreak in the San Diego area had been traced to E. coli-contaminated lettuce just weeks before.”