March 2007

Peep, chirp, quack! one chick just hatched

Th CDC warns the public of the risk of Salmonella being transferred from chicks to humans.

Why parents should think twice before giving baby birds for Easter:

Easter brings to mind brightly colored eggs, baskets full of candy, and large chocolate bunnies. Traditions associated with the Easter season are enjoyable for children and adults alike. However, some Easter traditions are of particular concern for children, placing them at risk for serious illness. Baby animals, including baby chicks and ducks, are sometimes given as gifts or put on display at this time. Because they are so soft and cute, many people do not realize the potential danger baby chicks and ducklings can be to small children. Young birds often carry harmful bacteria called Salmonella. And, each spring some children become infected with Salmonella after receiving a baby chick or duckling for Easter.

Harmful bacteria carried in the chick’s and duckling’s intestine contaminates their environment and the entire surface of the animal. Children can be exposed to the bacteria by simply holding, cuddling, or kissing the birds. Children are most susceptible to infection because they are more likely than others to put their fingers into their mouths and because their immune systems are still developing. Others at increased risk include persons with HIV/AIDS, pregnant women, the elderly and other immunocompromised persons.

I spent Tuesday (beginning at 7:00 AM in 40 degree weather) with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and a camera crew from CNN traveling around Salinas and San Juan Bautista investigating the cause of the 2006 Dole Spinach E. coli Outbreak.  I found Dr. Gupta very well informed and fair in his questions (probably because his wife is a lawyer).  I was also impressed with both his concern for the victims of the illnesses, but also for the farmers and workers impacted by the downturn in spinach sales.  I hope the show they are filming continues progress in food safety.

Alex Pulaski of the Portland Oregonian had been working on the following piece for the last several weeks:

When something goes terribly wrong with peanut butter, lettuce or spinach, Bill Marler starts adding telephone lines to handle calls pouring into his Seattle office.

Marler has emerged as the country’s preeminent plaintiff’s lawyer in food-borne-illness cases. His firm has won nearly $300 million in settlements from restaurants and suppliers, and the financial drain — coupled with Marler’s constant calls for reform — has leveled pressure on industry and government to better police food.

“Put me out of business,” Marler repeats as his rallying cry.

Continue Reading Food fight

Dateline takes a look at problems in food safety. What’s behind last year’s rash of E. coli outbreaks? And is there anything the FDA can do to safeguard our produce?

See Video

One victim’s story

Michelle Matthews of Eagle Creek, Utah, and her 2-year-old daughter Arabella both became seriously ill from spinach in early Sept. 2006. Arbella’s kidneys shut down and she had to undergo dialysis and multiple blood transfusions.

“I thought, ‘There’s no way someone can suffer that much and survive,'” recalls Michelle.

According to Matthews, the doctors were upfront about the health dangers E. coli posed. There’s no antidote for E. coli poisoning. Doctors just treat the symptoms and hope for the best.

And it didn’t take much produce to poison little Arabella. “She had had a sandwich with spinach on it,” says Michelle. “It was just a few leaves.”

Arabella managed to pull through, but another toddler, 2-year-old Kyle Allgood, was not as fortunate. He was one of four who died in the outbreak.

“We can say all day long that we have the safest food system in the world,” says Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who specializes in cases involving victims of E. coli-contaminated produce. “Well, we don’t. And we have systems that are broken. We have things that need to be fixed.”

Marler represents Michelle Matthews, who is suing Dole Foods and Natural Selections/Earthbound Foods to cover her past and future medical bills and her pain and suffering. He says the industry has known about and ignored the problem for years.

“It’s easy in these situations to go, ‘I’m not sure exactly what caused the problem, so there’s nothing I can do. But I’m making a lot of money selling spinach and lettuce in a bag, so I’m going to keep doing that.’ They didn’t take the time to figure out what the problem was,” says Marler.

A Taco Bell victim

Web-extra: Stephen Minnis of Pennsylvania never thought he would be susceptible to E. coli poisoning. He got sick after eating contaminated lettuce, and now has little trust in vegetable food safety.

See Video

E. coli probe fails to solve outbreak – Mission Ranch officially named as source
By Dawn Withers, The Salinas Californian

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney representing 93 people sickened from the outbreak, said he will decide in the next few weeks whether to add the three other farms to his lawsuits, which already target Mission Organics.

Government hails produce-handling rules – Voluntary guidelines for growers, packers were developed after spinach E. coli scare
By George Raine, San Francisco Chronicle

Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who represents 93 of the victims of the spinach E. coli outbreak and who was a plaintiffs’ lawyer in the Jack in the Box and Odwalla E. coli cases in the 1990s, said the industry is fooling itself by self-regulation.

“The problem with voluntary good agricultural practices is they are voluntary,” Marler said. One result of the Jack in the Box incident was rules for the meat industry enforced by Department of Agriculture, he said.

“The bottom line was that they produced mandatory good agricultural practices that were backed by inspections and bacteria product testing. Without that, it is meaningless,” Marler said.

Tainted-spinach source identified – Report links contamination outbreak to single grower
By Brandon Bailey, San Jose Mercury News

“No one in the industry should take solace from the fact that Mission Organics is named as the most likely source of contaminated product,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who represents nearly 100 victims of last fall’s outbreak. “All of these farms could have the same problems.”

Marler is suing the grower and the processor, Natural Selection Foods, as well as Dole Foods, which sold the spinach under its own label.

State and federal health departments have identified a ranch in San Benito County as the likely source of a recent E. coli outbreak in spinach that killed three people and sickened more than 200. Authorities for the first time say the E. coli contamination originated from the Paicines Ranch in San Benito County. The ranch breeds Angus cattle and quarter horses and leases land to crop growers.

On the Paicines Ranch website:

Our Statement About the Recent E. coli outbreak

We are deeply saddened by the results of the recent outbreak of E. coli found in spinach. It has been reported that the Paicines Ranch is under investigation. This is not true. The Paicines Ranch is not under investigation by any government agency. We lease row crop land to farmers. If you want to know whether a particular farmer is under investigation, you should ask them. Since we neither farm nor process row crops of any kind, we are unable to comment further.

“This industry is only as strong as its weakest link,” said attorney Bill Marler, who is representing 93 of the outbreak victims. “The next time there is an outbreak, the whole industry is going to take a hit, not just the farmer who didn’t sign the agreement.”

Garance Burke of the Fresno Associated Press today wrote a comprehensive overview of the FDA’s report on the 2006 DOLE E. coli outbreak: story here

By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer of Land Line:

Defending victims of food-borne illnesses – like E. coli – has been attorney Bill Marler’s focus since 1993, now he has a new perspective on how hauling potentially contaminated loads of produce and the lack of federal regulations affects truckers.

How long can the produce industry continue to dance around mandatory regulation?

That’s the question famed E. coli attorney Bill Marler posed to Land Line Magazine when he responded to an article, “Produce industry still missing the point with self-regulation,” posted on Land Line’s daily Web news last week.

“To be honest with you, I never realized how wide of a swath has been impacted by the E. coli outbreak,” Marler told Land Line on March 16. “I didn’t even think of the impact on truckers.”

The E. coli outbreak in September 2006 piqued the interest of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, since many produce haulers were stuck with the financial and logistical responsibilities of disposing of potentially contaminated spinach. Some were not paid for their loads that weren’t even part of the recall because no regulations are in place to protect truckers in situations where produce has been recalled.

Marler’s firm, Marler Clark, based in Seattle, has become one of the nation’s foremost law firms representing victims of food-borne illnesses. His firm is representing 93 victims of the recent E. coli outbreak, who were sickened after eating bagged spinach. So far, none of the clients Marler represents have received a penny, he said. However, a recent Iraq spending bill in Congress includes a provision that would give $25 million in federal aid to help spinach growers financially impacted by the E. coli scare, according to a recent article in The New York Times.

Earlier this week, U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials admitted that growing practices for fresh fruit and vegetables need to improve, but said they favor voluntary guidelines that would allow the produce industry to regulate itself.

Marler agrees with OOIDA leaders who say the FDA isn’t doing enough to ensure consumer confidence in eating leafy greens, and that federal oversight is needed to protect public health.

“Without some uniform standards that are applicable to everybody and more rigorous oversight, this is going to happen again,” Marler said. “It still kind of perplexes me when I go to these hearings and I listen to shippers and growers and hear them say they want a voluntary marketing agreement – basically dancing around regulation.

“But, they never really articulate a clear reason why they don’t want it. They are basically telling everybody publicly that they want it strictly enforced, but they want to enforce it themselves, and I think it’s kind of gone past that.”

Marler began litigating food-borne illness cases in 1993, when he represented victims of the highly publicized Jack-in-the-Box E. coli O157:H7 hamburger outbreak. His litigation helped change the United States Department of Food and Agriculture’s meat-inspection procedures.

E. coli contamination in meat is down almost 80 percent because of stringent USDA inspection procedures now in place, but the same stringent procedures must be applied to the produce industry, he said.

“Until the produce industry realizes they must change their practices and stop dancing around regulation, I am going to continue to take money from them,” Marler said. “All I have to do is prove their products make people sick.”

Adam Tanner from Reuters wrote today – “Source of 2006 toxic spinach uncertain”

After a six-month probe, U.S. and state officials said on Friday they could not conclude how spinach became infected with toxic E. coli bacteria that killed three and sickened 205, but that wild pigs and well water were possible sources.

  • “No definitive determination could be made regarding how E. coli O157:H7 pathogens contaminated spinach in this outbreak,” concluded a report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the California Department of Health Services.
  • “Potential environmental risk factors for E. coli O157:H7 contamination identified during this investigation included the presence of wild pigs in and around spinach fields and the proximity of irrigation wells used for ready-to-eat produce to surface waterways exposed to feces from cattle and wildlife.”
  • The study, which included detailed DNA analysis, traced 13 bags of Dole brand “Baby Spinach” from Natural Selection Foods with E. coli O157:H7 to four fields in California’s Monterey and San Benito counties. They then focused on one farm called Paicines Ranch which is mostly used for cattle grazing, with a small portion leased by Mission Organics, based in Salinas, to grow crops.

Firms linked to the spinach outbreak face about a dozen lawsuits from victims, said Bill Marler, an attorney who represents the three who died and 93 who fell ill.  “The industry just seems to have an inability to deal with this ongoing contamination problem and their voluntary guidelines that they have adopted will do nothing to protect the public,” Marler said. He said those who have fallen seriously ill in similar past cases have received settlements as high as several million dollars

On March 21, 2007, The California Department of Health Services and the United States Food and Drug Administration released its report, “Investigation of an Escherichia coli O157:H7 Outbreak Associated with Dole Pre-Packaged Spinach.”  and, “Recommendations in follow up to the Investigation of an Escherichia coli O157:H7 Outbreak Associated with Dole PrePackaged Spinach.”  The report and recommendations follow the 2006 E. coli outbreak that was traced to pre-packated Dole spinach that was produced in California’s Salinas Valley and sold nationwide.