A preliminary investigation report released by the Ohio Department of Health pointed to contaminated fruit served at seven catered events in the Toledo area as the source of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that sickened 14 people and killed one woman last September. Two people developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a complication of E. coli infection that can lead to organ failure, central nervous system impairment, and death.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to investigate the outbreak, but Ohio health officials note in the preliminary report that, “Although other possibilities exist, findings suggest that the fruit may have been contaminated during preparation.” In fact, two people in Wisconsin who tested positive for a genetically indistinguishable strain of E. coli as that isolated from outbreak case-patients in Toledo reported consuming undercooked ground beef before becoming ill.
“If the CDC links this outbreak to fruit being cross-contaminated with a meat source, it won’t be the first time,” said William Marler, a food safety advocate and attorney who has dedicated his practice to representing victims of foodborne illness outbreaks.
In 1998, watermelon cross-contaminated with beef tri-tips caused an E. coli outbreak among over 60 patrons of two Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Sizzler restaurants. Several children developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, and one child died as part of the outbreak. Marler’s firm, Marler Clark, represented ten adults and four children in litigation against Sizzler and Excel, the company that supplied the tainted tri-tips to the restaurants.
“Any person working in food service should be aware of the risks of cross-contaminating ready-to-eat foods, such as fruit, that do not require a ‘kill step’ in their preparation,” Marler continued. A kill step involves pasteurization, or heating a food product to a temperature high enough to kill bacteria.
BACKGROUND: Marler has represented thousands of individuals sickened after eating foods contaminated with pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and hepatitis A. In addition to his legal work, Marler spends time educating food industry groups on the legal ramifications of foodborne illness outbreaks, and how to prevent outbreaks in the first place through OutBreak, a not for profit organization he and his legal partners started in 1998. See Marler Clark-sponsored Web sites: www.marlerclark.com, www.outbreakinc.com, and www.ecolilitigation.com for more information.
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