December 2006

With E. coli contaminating lettuce at Taco Bell and Taco John’s sickening 150 in the last few weeks and Dole spinach poisoning over 200 with 4 deaths in September, one would tend to forget the Wendy’s E. coli outbreak in June.  Here is the story:

In early August 2006, public health officials in Weber County, Utah, became aware of several people who attended a teachers’ conference luncheon that had contracted E. coli O121:H19. On August 2, 2006, the Weber-Morgan Health Department (WMHD) issued a News Release indicating that three people had contracted E. coli O121:H19, and that two of the individuals had developed HUS.  WMHD stated that the evidence indicated that all three people contracted E. coli from the same source sometime during June 27-30 at a restaurant in the Ogden, Utah area. By August 7, WMHD officials had revised the number of outbreak victims to four, including three who had developed HUS.

WMHD further concluded that the source of the contamination was iceberg lettuce prepared at the Wendy’s Restaurant at 2500 North 400 East in North Ogden, Utah. One of the patients with confirmed HUS who had not attended the teacher’s conference had eaten cheeseburgers with iceberg lettuce at the Wendy’s Restaurant during the outbreak period. The second confirmed HUS case was an attendee of the teachers’ conference, and a third case of HUS was determined to be secondary transmission from an infected person at the conference.  Eventually, WMHD determined that at least 69 people had become ill in the outbreak. Of the sixty-nine people who reportedly became ill, four remained hospitalized and were in serious condition.

WMHD had made an inspection of the Ogden Wendy’s on June 27, 2006, before WMHD learned of the outbreak. The investigation revealed Wendy’s had one critical violation. It was found that the chemical sanitizers applied to food-contact surfaces did not meet the requirements specified in 21 CFR 178.0110. Wendy’s was using Spic and Span as the sanitizer.

Investigators conducted a study of the persons who had attended the teachers’ conference to determine the extent of illness among the attendees. WMHD contacted and interviewed 225 individuals who had attended the conference and consumed food from Wendy’s. Of this number, 69 (31%) became ill. WMHD determined that the likely exposure period was between June 27 and 30. Onset of illness occurred between June 27 and July 26, with the majority of the cases occurring between July 4 and July 12.  Part of the WMHD investigation included a thorough inspection of three establishments that catered to the teachers’ conference. The only common food item shared by those who became ill from E. coli was iceberg lettuce from the North Ogden Wendy’s restaurant.

Three of the HUS patients with E. coli O121:H19 were laboratory confirmed by stool culture. DNA subtyping by Pulsed Field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE) showed that one of the individuals that was not associated with the conference, but who had consumed cheeseburgers from Wendy’s during the outbreak period, was an identical genetic match to one of the previous confirmed E. coli cases associated with Wendy’s.

Asjylyn Loder of the St. Petersburgh Time reported today in her story “String of area E. coli cases stirs concern” about our clients’ the Lapis and the family’s struggle to fid the source of their twins E. coli-related illness.

When Kim Lapi’s 9-year-old twins were hospitalized with E. coli in early November, state health officials told her there were no other cases in Florida. Her children weren’t part of an outbreak, they assured her.

Then Lapi met Tampa mom Bonnie Villella, whose 14-year-old daughter had near-fatal complications of E. coli in the hospital room next door. Then she found Christil Perez in Pasco County, whose 4-year-old son also had the dangerous infection in mid October. Finally, health officials told Lapi last week of a case that matched her twins: a 20-year-old man in Lake County, who went to an emergency room on Oct. 30.

“We don’t notify the public on sporadic cases, single cases, of any disease unless there’s a public health threat,” said Roberta Hammond, food and waterborne disease coordinator for the Florida Department of Health.

But the three moms said the department failed to investigate aggressively enough, especially in light of recent outbreaks throughout the country. Their stories highlight the frustration of parents trying to protect their children from a harrowing disease, and the difficulties faced by “disease detectives” trying to protect the public.

Unfortunately, this failure on the part of health departments generally and Florida specifically, are far too common according to a report by Thomas Hargrove of the Scripps Howard News Service entitled “States fail to identify food-borne illnesses.”

Scripps studied 6,374 food-related disease outbreaks reported by every state to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from Jan. 1, 2000, through Dec. 31, 2004. The causes of nearly two-thirds of the outbreaks in that period were officially listed as “unknown.”

The findings translate into an alarming potential for tragedy. If health officials are unable to connect illness to food, victims who might eat from the same poisoned source cannot be warned. If food is known as the culprit, but the specific disease lurking within is not diagnosed, the victims may get even sicker or die without proper treatment.

In Alabama, Florida and New Jersey, the cause of food poisoning is almost never found, even when it is known that dozens or hundreds of people became violently ill or died from something they ate, according to the Scripps study.

During the five-year period studied, Florida reported only seven people sickened by E. coli outbreaks, a suspiciously low number for a state of its size. Nationwide, at least 3,349 people contracted E. coli in food-poisoning outbreaks.

To keep things in perspective – we (Florida) have much work to do.  Every year, an estimated 5,000 Americans die from food-based diseases like Salmonella, E. coli, Shigellosis and Campylobacter. Another 325,000 people are hospitalized. The CDC estimates that food-based sickness probably afflicts 76 million Americans annually.

The Bug that ate the Lettuce

Most Americans would agree with me that fast food is generally unhealthy. They would also agree that lettuce is a healthy food and that eating healthy foods should improve your health – not put you in the hospital.

But, here’s the reality: In recent weeks as many as 150 people across the Northeast and upper Midwest have become ill after eating at fast food restaurants. Many of those have landed in hospitals; some attached to kidney dialysis machines. And it wasn’t just fast food that made them sick – it was the lettuce.

A few months ago, 200 people got sick and at least four died from eating E. coli-contaminated spinach. A year earlier, in September 2005, over two dozen were sickened, including one young girl who suffered acute kidney failure, after eating bagged, pre-washed lettuce. Similar outbreaks occurred in 2002 and 2003.

This recent history shows us that E. coli is no longer linked exclusively to tainted meat. The Food and Drug Administration reports over 20 outbreaks related to fresh leafy produce in the last 10 years with nearly 1,000 sickened.

Despite having no legislative mandate or recall authority, the FDA has been prodding the produce industry to address problems that pose a serious risk to consumers. In August 2006, the agency developed the Lettuce Safety Initiative in an effort to support the goals of its own 2004 Produce Safety Action Plan and to protect public health by preventing further lettuce-related E. coli outbreaks.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, E. coli outbreaks linked to tainted meat have declined by 42 percent. As a lawyer specializing in food-borne illness litigation, I’ve seen this happen, but I’m still as busy as ever. A decade ago most of my clients had been sickened by tainted meat. Today, my business comes almost entirely from people sickened by lettuce, sprouts, tomatoes, spinach, green onions, and parsley.

To turn this around, we need somebody like Michael Taylor, who was head of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service in the mid-1990s, when undercooked hamburgers from Jack in the Box sickened 650 people and killed four children. In the wake of that epidemic, Taylor stood before the American Meat Institute and announced, "We consider raw ground beef that is contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 to be adulterated within the meaning of the Federal Meat Inspection Act." Taylor was warning the industry "things were going to be different and there was going to be accountability."

Taylor and FSIS introduced mandatory Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point plans, a risk management system requiring meat processors to adopt precautions such as carcass washes, citric acid sprays, steam pasteurization, and air-exchange systems. Today, the U.S. meat industry staffs in-house microbiologists or contracts with outside labs to test for E. coli and other contaminants before meat is shipped to consumers.

To prevent future outbreaks, we need follow FSIS’ example, and serve notice to processors that E. coli is an adulterant that will no longer be tolerated in our fresh produce supply. The produce industry must adopt the same precautions that meat processors adopted years ago.

But, putting the burden solely on produce producers will not be the “silver bullet” to control E. coli. We need a broad approach. If I had a vote, I would demand Senate hearings to discuss not only what the produce industry can do but also the following:

– Is the production of an E. coli vaccine for cattle to reduce or eliminate one large reservoir of the nasty germ feasible?

– Is irradiation for all mass-produced foods, including produce, an option?

– Are our food safety regulations up to date given risks we face today from at home and abroad?

– Do we need mandatory State and Federal recall authority, or is industry-based, voluntary recall authority sufficient?

– Is establishing one agency at the federal level responsible for all food safety to work directly with state and local regulators and health departments to help industry prevent viral or bacterial contamination the answer?

– Would an increase in funding for state health departments and CDC help in identifying outbreaks and stopping them early?

– What is the best science available to help the victims of E. coli if they do become ill?

Having this discussion is long past due. There should be no more excuses for finding real solutions. Finding solutions will ultimately help the business bottom line, but most importantly, finding solutions will prevent innocent people from being sickened by eating what is supposed to be good for them.

Cindy Hadish of the Gazette covered the press conference held by CEO of Taco John’s, Paul Fisherkeller.  Interestingly, this story, and the actual video of the conference does, not mention that Taco John’s has offered to pay the medical expenses of this poisoned at their restaurants.  So, what is it Taco John’s?

Excerpts of the story below; see full story here.


The same day Taco John’s CEO assured customers that it’s safe to eat at the restaurants, another lawsuit was filed, implicating a fourth Taco John’s in the Midwestern E. coli outbreak.  He said he had not seen the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Cedar Rapids.

The suit claims Karen Hibben-Levi of Waterloo became ill after eating a super burrito, hard shell taco, and Potato Ole’s Nov. 30 at Taco John’s, 602 Broadway St., Waterloo.  State and Black Hawk County health officials said Iowa’s outbreak was tied to only one restaurant, which they have not named. The Cedar Falls Taco John’s is the restaurant widely reported to be tied to the outbreak.  The lawsuit is the first to implicate a Waterloo Taco John’s.

Bill Marler, partner in the Seattle-based Marler Clark Law Firm, which filed the suit, said tests showed Hibben-Levi’s strain matched the outbreak.  She was hospitalized and continues to suffer extreme fatigue, abdominal discomfort and other symptoms, according to the lawsuit.  A lawsuit filed by Marler Clark last week claims a 9-year-old Cedar Falls girl also was hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome.  Marler said Autumn Saul is no longer hospitalized, but is still not back at school.

Todd Dvorak of the Associated Press in Iowa City, Iowa wrote this afternoon about the lawsuit we filed today on behalf of Karen Hibben-Levi.  The full story can be found at

Fast food chain Taco John’s was hit with another lawsuit Tuesday, this one by a customer who contracted E. coli after eating a super burrito and a hard shell taco from a Waterloo franchise.  The lawsuit is the second filed in federal court since as many as 76 people were sickened after eating at Taco John’s restaurants in Iowa and Minnesota in late November and early December. Health officials have blamed lettuce tainted with a strain of the E. coli bacteria.

Since the outbreak, Taco John’s has taken several steps to assure customers that its food is safe. Last week, the Cheyenne, Wyo.-based company severed ties with the company that distributes produce to more than 100 franchises in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas.

But Seattle-based attorney Bill Marler, who represents both plaintiffs, said changing distributors does not solve the problem. He said health experts believe the lettuce was tainted in the growing fields of California or Arizona.

"At this point, the issue is at the farm level, not at the distribution level, and it seems that one supplier’s produce is not likely safer than the next," said Marler, of Marler Clark, one of the nation’s leading food-borne illness law firms.

You might find the video ot the Taco John’s CEO’s press conference interesting – at least at this conference he does not offer to pay the medical bills – I wonder what changed his mind?

Early this morning on E. coli Blog I posted a call to Taco John’s to pay the E. coli victim’s medical bills.

“William Marler, a food safety advocate and attorney who is representing 10 victims of an E. coli outbreak at several Taco John’s locations in Iowa and Minnesota, called today on Taco John’s to pay the medical bills of all individuals who became ill with E. coli infections as part of the outbreak. “We know that at least 26 people were hospitalized during this outbreak,” Marler said. “Some families are already facing bills in the tens of thousands of dollars. It’s only right that Taco John’s should step up and pay all victims’ medical bills.”

“Marler noted that in other outbreak-situations companies such as Dole, Jack in the Box, Odwalla, Chi-Chi’s and Sheetz advanced medical costs for outbreak victims whose illnesses were traced to their food products. “Other companies have shown their commitment to corporate responsibility and have put their customers first. It is my hope that Taco John’s will follow their lead,” Marler concluded.”

It is good to see that someone other than my mother reads my blogs.  A few moments ago, Taco John’s announced that they would pay the medical bills.  Great job Taco John’s!

However, past medical bills are a part of the compensation that victims can rightly recover.  Wage Loss, Future Medical Expenses and Pain and Suffering are also recoverable.  Today, we filed the second lawsuit against Taco John’s on behalf of another Iowa resident.

Taco John’s CEO aims to blunt damage from E. coli outbreak
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS – Taco John’s International sought Tuesday to reassure customers that an E. coli outbreak at its Mexican restaurants in Minnesota and Iowa was isolated and now behind the company.  “We’d like to hope that people would feel confident to come back to Taco John’s this afternoon for lunch,” CEO Paul Fisherkeller said at a morning news conference in Minneapolis where he said he’d do that himself.  Fisherkeller said the company would cover the medical costs of all its customers who got sick. At least 80 people in the two states were sickened after eating at restaurants in three cities.

OK, Taco Bell, what are you doing about your customer’s medical bills?  See my post from December 5, 2006.

The Weekend America show on NPR last week had a great story on the impacts of E. coli on children, my clients, Nora and Pete Krause.  Listen to the story on this LINK.

This week, Federal health officials said that lettuce was the most likely source for the E. coli outbreak that has made 70-plus people sick in the Northeast. This scare really hits home for Dennis Krause. Last September, his family got sick from eating contaminated spinach. His son was hit the hardest, and after being put on dialysis and having several blood transfusions, is still recovering. We talk to Krause about how his relationship to food has changed since his family’s illness and what the latest scare means to him.

According to reporter Dave Franzman of KCRG-TV ABC 9 Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

Taco Bell, Taco John’s Tell Public It is Safe to Come Back

Two national Mexican fast food chains are working to reassure the public after recent E. coli outbreaks.  Taco Bell placed full page newspaper ads telling consumers the food is safe. And Taco John’s CEO will come to Iowa on Tuesday to talk about what happened at a Cedar Falls restaurant.  Tuesday afternoon, he’ll travel to Cedar Falls to discuss test results and new food safety practices.  Some franchise owners plan to attend as well.  Taco John’s also begins running full page newspaper ads reassuring consumers on Tuesday.

But is it really safe?  Can the CEO’s really assure the public that all of the ingredients in a Taco are safe to consume?  The answer is no.  I think the CEO’s are more concerned about slumping sales that consumer safety.  Unfortunately, E. coli outbreaks associated with produce, specifically the “pre-washed” and “ready-to-eat” lettuce, and to a lesser degree, spinach are by no means a new phenomenon. There were over 200 sickened, dozens with kidney failure, and at least 4 deaths attributed to eating E. coli contaminated spinach this past September. A year earlier, in September 2005, over two dozen were sickened, including one young girl who suffered acute kidney failure after eating Dole bagged lettuce in three states. In October 2003, 13 residents of a California retirement center were sickened and 2 died after eating E. coli-contaminated “pre-washed” spinach. In September 2003, nearly 40 patrons of a California restaurant chain became ill after eating salads prepared with bagged, “pre-washed” lettuce. In July 2002, over 50 young women were stricken with E. coli at a dance camp after eating “pre-washed” lettuce, leaving several hospitalized and one with life-long kidney damage. The Center for Science in the Public Interest found that, of 225 food-poisoning outbreaks from 1990 to 1998, nearly 20 percent were linked to fresh fruits, vegetables, or salads. FDA records report over 20 outbreaks related to fresh leafy produce in the last 10 years with nearly 1,000 sickened.  So, is it really safe to go back in the water?

We will file another lawsuit against Taco John’s today in Federal Court in Iowa on behalf of a woman sickened while dining at its restaurant.  She was hospitalized for nearly a week.  We continue to investigate nearly a dozen other Taco John’s related illnesses in both Iowa and Minnesota.  We have also filed two suits against Taco Bell, one in New York and the other in Pennsylvania Federal Courts, and are investigating two dozen more from several Northeast States, including two cases of Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome.

See an earlier post on the CEO’s of Taco Bell and Taco John’s – Would you buy a taco from this man?

E. coli cases we have done – Marler news – E. coli

There is nothing funny about people being sickened by going to a restaurant.  However, it will be interesting if Taco Bell and Taco John’s listen to the laughs from late night.

Jay Leno

‘Did you hear about this story? I guess nearly 30 people in New Jersey have been sickened by an E. coli outbreak that’s been traced to a Taco Bell restaurant. So today Taco Bell took action. They finally took the E. coli Taco off the menu.’

“A woman in Fort Wayne, Indiana is suing because she got shot in her car at a Taco Bell drive through restaurant. She said that Taco Bell should have done more to protect her from people. Hey, Taco Bell can’t even protect her from their own food. Bullets are the least of your problems at Taco Bell. Because of this E. coli outbreak, Taco Bell is going to have to make major changes in their sanitation procedures… Or, maybe just lower their price.”

"Taco Bell has had to close several restaurants because an outbreak of E. coli has made customers sick. As a result, Taco Bell is changing their slogan from ‘Think Outside the Bun’ to ‘Puke Outside the Store.’"

Dave Letterman

“A U.N. study has found that methane gas causes more global warming than man. Unless the man has ate at Taco Bell.”

“Something like 30 people have gotten E. coli from Taco Bell. Don’t you remember the good old days when at fast food chains you only had to worry about finding the occasional finger in your food?”

“Actually the Taco Bell in New Jersey has reopened as a cruise ship. They just opened it back up and pushed it out to sea.”

"By the way, Taco Bell has a new menu item: it is the ‘chili con coli’… Talk about thinking outside the bun. What? Look out."

“It was so beautiful today, Taco Bell customers were actually walking to the emergency room.”

Letterman’s Top Ten

10. "Are my affairs in order?"

9. "Why is the counter kid wearing a hazmat suit?"

8. "Will the hot sauce kill the bacteria?"

7. "Is this how they poisoned that Russian spy?"

6. "Do I really want to succumb to a taco-related death?"

5. "Should I go somewhere safer for lunch like Fallujah?"

4. "Will this help me meet the recommended E. coli daily requirement?"

3. (No number 3 — writer ate a bad chalupa)

2. "What would Kristie Alley do?"

1. "Wait – when was Taco Bell not tainted with E. coli?"

And likely the worst/best of them all – “Taco Bell Chalupa of Death”

And Web Videos – Taco Bell E. coli

And Google Fearcast – Video

A CNN report from today offers yet another review of late-night comedy about public health issues brought up during the latest E. coli outbreak traced to Taco Bell.  You can find it here.