Activist Law Firm Lobbying for Hepatitis-A Vaccination Program

Food manufacturers and restaurants should voluntarily vaccinate their employees against hepatitis-A, according to attorneys from the Seattle-based law firm of Marler Clark following a recent hepatitis-A outbreak in Orlando, Fla.

Large, well-publicized hepatitis-A outbreaks have become increasingly common in the restaurant industry, according to a news release. Such outbreaks have been linked to two Seattle Subway outlets, a Carl's Jr. restaurant in Spokane, Wash., three restaurants in northwest Arkansas, a Maryland restaurant and the Crab House seafood restaurant in Orlando, an outbreak that may have resulted in a death.

"The restaurant industry and food manufacturers must finally take action and vaccinate all of their employees before an outbreak occurs, not after," said Denis Stearns, an attorney with Marler Clark. "Absent that step, an effective and rigorous hand-washing policy is the single-most important means of stopping the spreading infection."

Last year, Stearns obtained a $1.06 million settlement on behalf of 29 persons who were infected with hepatitis-A after eating contaminated food at two Seattle Subway Sandwich franchises. Marler Clark also represented the exposure victims of the Carl's Jr. hepatitis-A outbreak that occurred last year in Spokane.

Stearns told The that he was unaware of any hepatitis-A outbreaks that have been linked to an ill worker at a meat processing plant.

“I wouldn't be surprised if one happened from time to time, “ he said. “But if it hasn't, that is probably because [the meat industry] pays much more attention to making sure its employees are not ill before allowing them to work. Hepatitis-A is becoming a better-known risk. It's something that requires industry's attention and proactive efforts to make sure that people don't get sick.

“I also think that SSOPs [Sanitation Standard Operating Procedure plans], hand-washing policies and those sorts of things are much more rigorous in the meat and food industries,” he added. “Retail HACCP is still a relatively novel [concept] in terms of implementation.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 83,000 cases of hepatitis-A occur in the United States annually, with at least 5 percent of cases related to food-borne transmission. In 1999, more than 10,000 people were hospitalized due to hepatitis-A infections, and 83 people died.

Although CDC has not called for mandatory vaccination of foodservice workers, it has repeatedly pointed out that the consumption of worker-contaminated food is a major cause of food-borne illness in the United States.

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Attorney answers reader's questions

In a story appearing in the March 7 The Daily News, Marler Clark principal William Marler said he felt meat companies are trying to improve meat safety, “But like anything else in life, you have to keep trying harder.”

A reader has since e-mailed The wanting to know Marler Clark's position on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point programs and irradiation.

“We are big proponents of HACCP,” Stearns said. “HACCP is a very good idea for any segment of the food industry. Developing a HACCP plan forces a food company to go through a process where they look critically at their own manufacturing processes, try to identify critical control points and design a safeguard to prevent contamination.”

More retail HACCP programs are sprouting up, Stearns admitted and said that is something for which the food industry “can take a little bit of credit.” Food processors have done such a good job with HACCP that “more people are recognizing that HACCP can be put in place anywhere,” he added.

In addressing the potential for irradiation as an intervention step in the meat industry, Stearns said, “Unfortunately, there still remains a lot of consumer resistance to this process.” But he said his colleagues recognize its potential significance to consumers.

“We've talked a lot about irradiation at the firm,” Stearns told The “We expect to see more irradiated food being served to more vulnerable segments of the population. I wouldn't be surprised -- if it hasn't already occurred -- to start seeing hospitals and school lunch programs using irradiated meat. People [there] are typically much more susceptible to food-borne illness.”

The partners at Marler Clark speak regularly on food-safety issues and have formed a non-profit organization dedicated to educating companies on how to avoid spreading food-borne diseases. Marler Clark also sponsors the following informational Web sites: