Outbreak reaches 19; lawyer [Bill Marler] predicts ground beef most likely source

Steve Doyle of the Huntsville Times and I spoke for over an hour on Wednesday about E. coli O157:H7 as a foodborne bacteria generally and specifically on the impacts on a community like Huntsville when the bacteria strikes. Although lettuce served at Little Rosie’s appears to be the common thread in all the illnesses (and leafy greens have been a growing concern over the years), I believe that you need to look hard for a cow – likely hamburger – as the source.

Mr. Doyle reported today that:  “[t]wo more people who may have eaten contaminated lettuce at a popular Huntsville restaurant have tested positive for E. coli exposure…. That brings to 18 the number of confirmed E. coli cases that public health officials have linked to shredded lettuce served at Little Rosie’s Taqueria between June 27 and June 30. At least two restaurant customers are hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious complication of E. coli poisoning that can cause kidney failure.”

What is significant is that the 18 people mentioned above share a couple of factors that link them together – all ate at Little Rosie’s between June 27 and June 30, and all are cultured-positive in stool cultures for E. coli O157:H7. At this point I assume that Alabama State Department of Health or the CDC has also linked these ill customers by “genetic fingerprinting,” also known as Pulsed Field Gel Electorphoresis (PFGE). This link DNA evidence in a criminal case, would be evidence to show that the 18 ill people share both a common source of the illness (Little Rosie’s) and most likely a common food.

What is a bit interesting is the “19th local resident who tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 [who] did not eat at Little Rosie’s.” According to Mr. Dolye: “officials aren’t sure how that person was infected.”

Questions that need to be asked: 1) what food items does this 19th person share with 18 who ate at Little Rosie’s, 2) did number 19 have any contact with the other 18, or other people who ate at Little Rosie’s between June 27 and 30, and, 3) is number 19’s E. coli O157:H7 stool culture match by PFGE to the other 18.  Mr. Doyle and I continued to talk:

Although state and county health officials point to shredded lettuce as the most likely culprit, Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in foodborne illness cases, said he suspects that the outbreak ultimately will be tied to ground beef.

There has been a flurry of about 50 E. coli cases nationally since early June, when California-based United Food Group recalled 5.7 million pounds of ground beef because of possible E. coli O157 contamination, Marler said. Found in healthy cattle, the bacteria can get onto meat if the intestines are pierced during slaughter.

“I’m willing to bet this outbreak you’re dealing with is a hamburger-related outbreak,” Marler said by phone Wednesday.

The recent surge in beef-related E. coli cases may be linked to a crackdown on illegal immigrants working in U.S. slaughterhouses, Marler said. In December, federal agents arrested more than 1,250 undocumented workers at six Swift & Co. meat-processing plants in Colorado, Texas, Nebraska, Utah, Iowa and Minnesota.

Marler said workers inexperienced in slaughtering cattle could increase the risk of E. coli contamination.

It is “highly likely” that some Little Rosie’s customers who got sick will sue the restaurant, Marler said. There have been substantial jury awards in past E. coli outbreaks. In 1993, Marler represented a 9-year-old girl whose kidneys failed after she ate a bacteria-tainted burger from a Jack in the Box in Seattle. Jurors ordered the restaurant chain to pay $15.6 million in damages, he said.

Marler said he has seen restaurants in these situations offer to pay customers’ hospital bills.

“These (kidney failure) victims are literally going to have hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills,” he said. For restaurant owners, “saying you’re sorry and paying the medical bills has been a pretty effective tool for getting the public on your side.”