Rest in Peace Larry King.
I wrote in my blog that in March 2009 I finally made it to the Blakely, Georgia Peanut Corporation of America plant. Despite being scrubbed a bit in the last few months after the announcement of the outbreak, we still found mice and cockroaches in the plant with several spots where the roof had been clearly leaking. Really little question that any company purchasing product from this plant should have been on notice of the risks had they ever taken the time for a quick visit. There were no lights nor air-conditioning in the plant (someone did not pay the bills I guess). I did find the below letter sitting in the fax machine in the office. Guess it came just before “the lights went out in Georgia.” At Mr. King’s request I took the letter offline – the letter had his producer’s cell phone number on it. Mr. King wanted Parnell to tell his story.
After being in Plainview and Blakely, where over 100 people lost their jobs, after seeing untilled peanut fields as I drove across South Georgia, I wonder where the hell the Peanut Association and the Georgia Department of Agriculture was in the years after the 2007 ConAgra Peter Pan Peanut Butter outbreak? What more could have been done to prevent 700 illnesses and nine deaths? What more could have been done to prevent over $1B in losses by business? Perhaps Stewart Parnell would have told Larry King?
It was then with some surprise that I got a call from the same King producer to come on the show to talk E. coli and hamburger.
As reported by Food Safety News, in October 2009, The Larry King Show on CNN last night cast a pretty wide net in focusing on both food safety and whether or not people are better off not eating meat.
Nationally known food safety attorney Bill Marler and victims’ advocates led off the one-hour program, but host Larry King, who had trouble pronouncing “E. coli outbreak,” was clearly more interested in hearing from his guests who sparred over whether a meat or vegan diet is best.
Before all that began, Marler did update viewers on the condition of 22-year-old Stephanie Smith, the Cold Spring, MN dance instructor who two years ago ate a hamburger from meat-giant Cargill Inc. and suffered devastating effects. Her story in the New York Times on Oct. 4th clearly captured King’s attention.
“She just entered into a rehab center today,” Marler told the CNN audience. “The kid wants to dance again. I think it is pretty unlikely, but she is going to give it a shot. She will be in there for six months. They are going to work hard physical therapy, occupational therapy, but she has a long road to hoe. She has risk of kidney failure, she suffered brain damage, and whether she will walk again is another thing.”
After listening to some of the stories from the families of victims from the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, King was surprised to learn that E. coli O157:H7 can be transmitted person-to-person, rather than just from consumption of a contaminated food product.
“Wait a minute, this can be contagious? You do not have to eat the meat?” King asked.
“Ten to 50 of these bacteria are enough to kill a child,” Marler explained how secondary transmission happens. “Thousands could fit on the head of a pin. You cannot see them, taste them or smell them.” He also explained why E. coli is more prevalent in ground beef than in whole cuts.
But, what was likely most remembered:
A few months (August 2010), later King’s producer called again.
KING: Over half a billion eggs have been recalled over the past two weeks. Contaminated eggs. A major danger problem linked to farms in Iowa. And over 1,000 people have gotten sick. Here to talk about it, Bill Marler. He’s food-borne illness attorney representing cases from this Salmonella outbreak.
KING: Bill, if the fault is in the cooker, why is the industry to blame?
BILL MARLER, ATTORNEY: Well, it’s a little bit more complex than what the doctor explained. I mean, there’s a lot of risk about cross contamination. You know, when you crack an egg, are you going to wear gloves? You know, what if it gets on the counter? What if your 2-year-old touches the counter?
And the other issue too is that the vast majority of these particular cases in this outbreak have been linked to restaurant egg consumption. So, its people going out to their diners, it’s going with their families, and getting sick from eggs that are being cooked in restaurants.
KING: Bill, is it true that there’s a bill in Congress that the FDA, if passed, could clamp down on things that David just described?
MARLER: Well, whether or not the FDA would clamp down on that is I think to be seen. Clearly, the FDA does not have the sort of authority that it needs to protect the U.S. consumers, both from factory farms and other farms that are producing contaminated products. In 20 years of litigating these cases, the vast majority of the factories, the vast majority of the manufacturing facilities that have poisoned people, most of them had not been inspected by the FDA for years before the outbreak happened.
Larry, you remember the infamous peanut butter outbreak of just last year. You know, that sickened 700 and killed nine people. The FDA had not been in that facility for years. It’s a resource issue.
KING: Bill, we have a statement from Wright County Egg, and I’ll read that to you. “Wright County Egg recognizes the significant consumer concern about the potential incidents of salmonella. That’s why we continue to work cooperatively with the FDA following our voluntary egg recall of shell eggs. This measure is consistent with our commitment to egg safety and it is our responsibility.” Bill, does that satisfy you?
MARLER: Well, that’s good to see that they hired a good PR firm, but the reality is that this outbreak started in the end of May, continued all of the way through August. There was a systemic salmonella problem in that plant. Whether it was from feed or cross contamination between one bird to another, the reality is that well over 1,000 people are confirmed ill by the CDC. The CDC will also tell you that for every one person they confirm — and they’ve confirmed 1,300 thus far — for everyone person they confirm, they don’t count 38.
So, this problem is far larger than I think we realize. And the outbreak was going on for months and the reality is that there was a systemic problem in that plant that, you know, caused a half a billion eggs to be recalled and likely more in the next week or so.
KING: Our guests are Bill Marler, David Kirby, and Dr. Raj. let’s take a call. Lake Charles, Louisiana, Hello. Sorry. San Francisco. Hello. Lake Charles, you’re next. San Francisco go ahead.
KING: Bill, understanding it’s only been in eggs since the ’80s, right?
MARLER: Salmonella Eriditis (ph), which is the bacteria that we’re seeing now, has really started showing up in the eggs in the ’70s. Most egg companies, large and small, have done a pretty good job of lowering the percentage of contaminated eggs. I agree with the doctor. It’s something you have to be concerned about. One in every 20,000 eggs is presumed to be contaminated.
But what you have here in this particular outbreak is a lot of eggs contaminated to sicken this many thousands of people. So there really was a problem in this particular plant that’s even far beyond what you would normally expect.
KING: Bill, what is the egg rule?
MARLER: The egg rule is a set of guidelines that really sort of came about from Pennsylvania nearly two decades ago, when they were trying to get a handle on the salmonella in their flocks. It was talked about during the Clinton administration, and it was about to go into effect. The Bush administration put a hold on it. It came into effect just in July of this year, after being pushed by this administration.
The reality is that they’re really guidelines to try to tamp down the volume of salmonella in the flocks, whether they are small or large. The egg rule goes into effect to farms that have 50,000 or more chickens as of July of this year; 3,000 to 50,000 go into effect two years from now. So, they’re really just a set of common-sense guidelines of checking and testing that at least help give consumers a sense that the eggs that they’re feeding their kids are as safe as they can be.
KING: Another question from Twitter. “We buy free range organic eggs. Are those safe,” David?
KIRBY: Not necessarily. I wish I could say they were. Most studies show that they are less likely to carry disease than factory farmed eggs. With these eggs, in a small sustainable farm, even if you have an outbreak of salmonella, you’re going to have what, a few hundred eggs that are infected. Not half a billion. It’s the scale that’s as much of a problem.
And also, it’s the feed and the quality of the feed and what goes into the feed. We know that we are what we eat. We forget that we’re also what we eat eats. And I think the American people need to wake up and be much more aware of what goes into chicken feed. You know, the chickens that we eat, the chickens that we grow for food, for meat, are often fed arsenic to make them grow faster and prevent disease. We don’t typically give arsenic to egg laying hens. But it just goes to show the quality of the feed results in quality of the food. I think Americans need to know more. And I think the FDA needs to do better regulation.
KING: What’s it like to contract salmonella and survive? A woman’s frightening story next.
KING: Joining us on the phone is Barb Pruitt. Barb is a victim of salmonella. Salmonella can cause serious injury and even death. About 400 people in the United States every year die from salmonella. You got it from lettuce, Barb?
BARB PRUITT, SALMONELLA SURVIVOR: Yes, I do. I had eaten lettuce and it completely changed my life.
KING: How so? What happened?
PRUITT: In the beginning, I started to just feel ill and thought I had a really bad flu. But several days later I knew it was much worse than that. It eventually led to me going to the hospital out of desperation, and I became septic and experienced tachycardia, and then I was flown out of my hometown to a bigger town, and they found out my intestines were necrotic. They removed several feet of my intestines. It’s quite an ordeal to experience salmonella.
KING: How do you know it was lettuce?
PRUITT: Well, my lawyer Bill Marler and I believe that the illness was linked to a nationwide outbreak last year from lettuce.
KING: So, you filed a lawsuit?
PRUITT: We are pursuing that.
KING: What do you make of this egg controversy?
PRUITT: I’m not eating no eggs. I can tell you that. It’s — salmonella is just amazing, unless you really experience it or you’re really aware it — the bad part about consumers is you purchase something in good faith and even though it is tainted, you can’t smell it or feel it. You have no idea of knowing that it contains something harmful that you’re going to eat.
And salmonella is nothing to mess with. Any food borne illness can really mess your body up.
KING: What was the first sign you had something was wrong?
PRUITT: It was about three days after I had eaten the lettuce that I knew I was in trouble. I was hoping it was the flu. I tried to stick it out at home for a few more days. By then I knew something was seriously wrong with me. You just know. Your body just reacts very strangely.
KING: Congratulations on living. Barb Pruitt with us on the phone, past salmonella victim. Dr. Raj, why would they have to take out the intestine?
KING: Get another call in for the panel. St. Louis, hello.
CALLER: Yes, my question is will there be compensation for the families that get sick? We’ve been fighting this for three weeks and four doctor visits for the last three weeks.
KING: You’re asking a legal question, sir?
KING: Bill, you are handling this. Who are you representing?
MARLER: I’m representing about 35 families throughout the United States. We filed two lawsuits, one in Wisconsin, and one in Iowa federal court. And we’ll seek — we’re seeking compensation for the victims for medical expenses and lost wages. But really the most important thing is, we now have subpoena power, and we have the ability to get documents from this company and ask some of the very tough questions of the regulators as to what they were doing over the last four months in that facility.
KING: Should this man from St. Louis contact an attorney right away?
MARLER: If they are a culture positive case, and the CDC has confirmed it, they are linked to this outbreak and they should contact a lawyer if they so choose.
Mr. King will be missed. And, I did get some backyard chickens as a result.