January 2005

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported yesterday that a human rights group has looked closely at a major industry in one country and found safety conditions like those of a century ago, systematic disrespect for workers’ rights and widespread disregard of international labor standards. Yes, conditions for U.S. meatpacking workers are scandalous.
Human Rights Watch last week released a comprehensive study of the meatpacking and processing industry. It’s a damning report that shows the widespread effects on workers of constant corporate cost cutting, union busting and political irresponsibility.
Worse, as Human Rights Watch acknowledges, much of the picture was already well documented, both in official papers and previous studies. The Human Rights Watch report gives particular credit to the chilling portrayal of workplace conditions in meat plants provided a few years ago by Eric Schlosser in “Fast Food Nation.”
As the Human Rights Watch report, written by Lance Compa, and Schlosser both observe, conditions today sadly mirror those in Upton Sinclair’s classic work, “The Jungle.” Sinclair’s portrayal of meatpacking plants, which will reach its 100th anniversary next year, led to federal legislation that improved conditions for workers and made meat considerably safer for consumers.

Continue Reading The Jungle’s new century

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 the The Salinas Californian reports, legal consequences of two food-borne illness outbreaks that sickened at least 63 people and killed one in 2003 have returned to the Salinas Valley, where state investigators say lettuce and spinach — contaminated at an unknown point before they were eaten — were grown.
Beginning with those infected with E. coli 0157:H7 by the tainted produce, lawsuits have blossomed throughout the food-growing and distribution chain. Now River Ranch Fresh Foods and Diamond Produce, the two companies said to have grown the contaminated lettuce and spinach, have taken preliminary steps toward suing Monterey County.
Lawyers for the two Salinas-area companies say the Monterey County Water Resources Agency failed to maintain Santa Rita Creek, resulting in flooding in 2003 that spread waste across a field where produce was grown.
From the article:

Forty of the customers sickened at Pat & Oscar’s sued the restaurant chain and settled their claims just before Christmas, said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who represented 29 of them.
Marler also represents the family of McWalter and Sarah Ish, another sickened Sequoias resident, in lawsuits against Sodexho USA, he said.

January 15, 2005
“People’s perception of the disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) is
coloured by the fact that it’s not a very nice disease,” adding that
salmonella, botulism and E. coli are much more effective killers.” Stephen
Moore, chairman of bovine genomics, University of Alberta’s department of
“We’ve resolved our differences. Both restaurants agreed to settle the
claims with the (E. coli) victims and are now going upstream after the
suppliers,” William Marler, Attorney, Marler Clark.

As the Herald Salinas Bureau reports, Marler Clark clients who were victims of an E. coli outbreak involving contaminated vegetables grown in Salinas Valley are settling their claims against the restaurants serving tainted produce in 2003.
But the legal cases continue while the restaurant owners attempt to pin the blame on Salinas Valley produce companies, and operators of those produce companies blame the Monterey County Water Resources Agency.
Terms of the settlement agreement between the restaurants and the approximately 49 victims of the outbreak are confidential. Not all those claims have been settled, but most have.

We as Americans have grown up believing that our food supply is the safest in the world. But the CDC estimates that over 300,000 people are hospitalized and over 5,000 die, just from eating food contaminated with a pathogen. In recent years, E. coli outbreaks have been linked to not just ground beef, but also to sprouts, lettuce, and steaks. Salmonella outbreaks have been traced to foods such as tomatoes, orange juice and cantaloupe. The largest Hepatitis-A outbreak in United States history has been linked to green onions. School children in a Chicago suburb were served chicken fingers contaminated with ammonia. And now, “Mad Cow” disease has been discovered at a slaughterhouse in Washington State.
While the incubation period for most foodborne pathogens is a matter of days and symptoms of hepatitis-A infection frequently do not show up for over a month, symptoms of Mad Cow, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, do not appear for up to forty years.
Because we should not have to worry about what we eat today, and the impact that it could have on us decades from now, we need stronger and more aggressive regulation by the USDA and the FDA. These two arms of the government must do everything they can to protect the consuming public.
Require the meat industry to document where specific lots of food are sold. That way, it can be recalled quickly if a pathogen is detected. In most outbreaks, there is no recall because retailers do not know where the meat came from and processors rarely step forward. Timely online records would allow meat to be efficiently tracked down and recalled as soon as inspectors get a positive test result.
Merge the two federal agencies (USDA and FDA) responsible for food safety. Right now, USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service and the inspection arm of the Food and Drug Administration share this mission. The system is bifurcated, which leads to turf wars and split responsibilities. We need one independent agency that deals with food-borne pathogens.
Finally, large purchasers of meat – fast food industry, grocery store chains, and yes, the USDA – must require the meat industry to produce high quality, pathogen lessened, meat. Can you imagine the power they can put on slaughterhouses to clean up this mess?

Canadian officials said Tuesday that they had found a new case of mad cow disease, a report made more worrisome because the cow was born after feed restrictions intended to prevent the spread of the disease were put in place in 1997.
It was the second infected cow from the western province of Alberta found in the two weeks since the Bush administration announced that it would soon allow imports of young Canadian cattle, for the first time since the initial case was found in May 2003. But in the other recent case, the cow was nearly 8 years old, born before the feed restrictions.
The new case is likely to strengthen a legal challenge to the administration’s decision, which as of March 7 would allow the import of cows under the age of 30 months as well as of an expanded variety of beef. The challenge, filed Monday by a group of Montana ranchers, said the import of Canadian livestock would endanger public health and American cattle.

So far eight families have contacted Marler Clark, and one lawsuit has been filed, over the Wendy’s ground beef E. coli outbreak in Marion County.
One family was hit twice when the two sons, a 4-year-old and a 23-month-old, became sick from E. coli. The 4-year-old was released last week from Oregon Health Sciences University Hospital, and the 23-month-old remained in fair condition Saturday night. Both had been on dialysis, after which patients can either recover or require transplants, depending on the severity of the condition.
As the Statesman Journal reports, three weeks after the largest E. coli outbreak in Marion County history, the investigation focuses on Wendy’s ground beef, said Dr. Paul Cieslak of the Oregon Health Division. The connection was made after a second Wendy’s restaurant in Tualatin was linked to the outbreak when an adult female was confirmed Sept. 2 as an E. coli victim. The DNA of the E. coli matched that of the Salem outbreak, confirming a common contamination source.
The lettuce link can be explained by cross contamination, which may have occurred because of improper food handling.
From interviews with Wendy’s employees, officials determined that a few workers had washed lettuce in a sink that had not been sanitized and previously contained utensils that had touched raw meat.

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.

Half Moon Bay fruit-juice maker Odwalla Inc. has reached a settlement — reportedly for $12 million to $15 million — with the families of five young victims of a 1996 food-poisoning outbreak caused by a tainted batch of the company’s apple juice.
The hefty settlement brings closer to an end a painful saga for the company and victims’ families, which began when Washington health authorities announced the outbreak at Halloween a year and a half ago. The company now has settled 17 lawsuits, with three remaining.
“It’s behind us now and we will move on,” said Terry Beverly of Seattle, a Microsoft engineer whose son, now 4, hovered near death after being stricken with an advanced stage of poisoning caused by a deadly microbe known as E. coli O157:H7.
“We’re very pleased to be able to fully compensate these children and to move forward with the families and with the lawyers to address the bigger issues of food-safety awareness,” said Chris Gallagher, a company official.