Biggest E. coli Outbreaks of 2008 Show a Problem Getting Worse, Says Food Safety Lawyer

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A look at the biggest E. coli outbreaks in 2008 suggests an ever-worsening problem. Food safety lawyer Fred Pritzker says failure of regulation is evident as E. coli outbreaks continued to cause death and serious illness. "You still get companies that continually flout the rules, and there's not enough consequences to stop the bad actors,'' Pritzker said. Pritzker lists details of five major E. coli outbreaks of 2008.

A look at the biggest E. coli outbreaks in 2008 suggests an ever-worsening problem.

In 2008, large-scale corporate farms and centralized production facilities continued to play a major role in America's E. coli problem. But by far the largest E. coli outbreak of the year was centered at a lone family restaurant in Locust Grove, Oklahoma.

The Country Cottage Restaurant outbreak started August. 15. By the time it was over, 341 people were sickened with E. coli O111 infections, 72 persons were hospitalized and one 26-year-old man, a gospel singer, was dead.

Fred Pritzker, a Minneapolis lawyer whose law firm is nationally recognized in the area of foodborne illness litigation, said that when taken all together, 2008 was a year in which America's deadly E. coli threat showed no signs of slowing down from a dangerous pace set in 2007. Between June and November 2007, 30 million pounds of beef were recalled by 20 different companies. In 2008, ground beef recalls linked to E. coli outbreaks continued to be common and large.

"It's a failure of regulation,'' Pritzker said. "People are eating food that contains this deadly pathogen.''

In keeping with the axiom that ground beef is the most common vector for E. coli O157:H7, 2008 was marked by multi-state outbreaks of infections that were associated with beef trimmings for hamburger produced by Nebraska Beef Ltd of Omaha. The company ordered two major recalls of tainted beef in June and July.

The year also was highlighted by a major E. coli outbreak related to fresh produce. In 2006, U.S. consumers were rocked by a deadly E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with bagged spinach. In 2008, the tainted leafy green vegetable was iceberg lettuce bagged at a food plant in Detroit. The outbreak sickened at least 50 people.

Pritzker said produce growers still lack effective mandatory safety standards to guard against E. coli contamination. In repeat-offender slaughterhouses, more inspections are needed.

"You still get companies that continually flout the rules, and there's not enough consequences to stop the bad actors,'' Pritzker said.

Ever since 1993, when four children died from E. coli O157:H7 infections in an outbreak linked to undercooked restaurant hamburgers, the U.S. food industry has been under pressure to curb the bacteria.

There was a decade of progress, including help from Congress. But Prtizker said 2008 was another year in which E. coli infections seemed to gain momentum. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2005 was the year when rates of E. coli O157:H7 infections in healthy people started to rise again after steady decline.

Some researchers believe a possible explanation for increased prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in cattle is related to a byproduct of ethanol. Called distillers grain, it became increasingly abundant as cattle feed during ethanol's boom in 2006, 2007 and early 2008.

A study by researchers at Kansas State University found higher levels of E. coli O157:H7 in the feces of cattle fed a diet that included distillers grain, which is cheaper than corn.

Although the study was not conclusive, Pritzker said a lot of food safety experts came to believe in 2008 that the correlation makes sense. And two other E. coli problems went unresolved in 2008: Several strains of E. coli that are just as deadly as O157:H7 remained unchecked by the government and some purveyors of raw milk are still skirting the law to sell a product increasingly linked to illness outbreaks.

"It's easy to gloss over the problem if you don't see the individual suffering involved in these outbreaks,'' Pritzker said. "The agony and the suffering of these individuals is dramatic and significant.''

Major E. coli Outbreaks of 2008:
-Country Cottage Restaurant. The outbreak was linked in August to contamination by E. coli O111. A total of 341 outbreak-related cases were reported, 56 cases were in children, 72 persons were hospitalized and one died. The restaurant was shut down and reopened in late November under an agreement with health officials. While no single food item was found to be the source, officials believe several different foods became contaminated with the bacteria.

-Nebraska Beef Ltd. In late June, the Omaha company recalled 5.3 million pounds of trimmings for ground beef. Health officials linked the product to 49 confirmed cases of E. coli O157:H7 infection in seven states. About a month later, the same slaughterhouse recalled another 1.2 million pounds of meat linked to 31 confirmed E. coli O157:H7 cases in 12 states. Much of the recalled meat was supplied through the Kroger grocery chain, but the tainted beef also turned up elsewhere. At the Barbecue Pit in Moultrie, Georgia, there were at least eight confirmed cases of E. coli O157:H7. In four of those illnesses, victims suffered hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a complication that can lead to kidney failure.

-Goshen Boy Scout Reservation. Health officials this summer confirmed 25 cases of E. coli O157:H7 infection among attendees at a Boy Scout camp in Goshen, Virginia. The cases were matched through molecular fingerprinting and linked to frozen ground beef from California-based S&S Foods. S&S recalled about 153,630 pounds of ground beef products.

-Aunt Mid's Iceberg Lettuce. Michigan officials confirmed that bagged iceberg lettuce was the common source of illness in a September-October outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections that included 38 cases in Michigan, nine in Illinois and three in Ontario. At least 21 of those who were sickened spent time in the hospital. The outbreak strain of E. coli was never found at Aunt Mid's processing plant and investigators could never say if the lettuce became contaminated at the plant or in California, where it was grown. Aunt Mid's lettuce was associated with E. coli infections at the Lenawee County Jail, two Illinois restaurants and Michigan State University.

-Vermont Ground Beef. In September,Vermont Livestock Slaughter and Processing Co. in Ferrisburg, Vermont, recalled 2,758 pounds of ground beef products that had been distributed to restaurants in the state. The recall was prompted by an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7. At least 10 people were sickened, including one who was hospitalized. An investigation by state and federal health officials found that the recalled beef may have caused the illnesses.

Pritzker | Ruohonen & Associates, P.A., is one of the few law firms in the United States that practices extensively in the area of foodborne illness litigation. The firm has collected millions of dollars on behalf of victims of E. coli poisoning and other foodborne illnesses.

For more information, visit or contact Fred Pritzker at (612) 338-0202. Pritzker | Ruohonen has offices at Plaza VII, Suite 2950, 45 South Seventh Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55402.


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