THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: July 28, 2002)
Ann Koesterer was in the intensive care unit tending to her desperately ill 6-year-old daughter when she learned the source of the sickness that rendered the child unconscious and near death for weeks.
Samples of meat taken from the freezer in her Orangeburg home contained a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria, an official from the Rockland Department of Health told her during that June 6 conversation.
Katelyn Koesterer and an 11-year-old neighbor who also ate a hamburger made from the meat had ingested the toxic bacteria. Katelyn is still seriously ill; the other girl was treated at home for cramps and diarrhea and recovered within a couple of days.
"I knew the meat came from BJ's," Koesterer said in an interview last week. "I figured that they would recall it immediately."
But it wasn't until July 17, nearly six weeks later, that a voluntary recall was issued by BJ's Wholesale Club to a limited number of people who bought meat at the West Nyack store during the same couple of days.
"It's completely irresponsible and unacceptable that it took so long," Koesterer said. "People's lives were put in jeopardy. Thank God that no one else was hurt or killed."
The delay in notifying consumers of the Rockland outbreak and recalling the tainted meat is another example of dangerously fragmented government oversight of potential contaminants in the nation's food supply, food safety advocates and victims of E. coli poisoning say.
"Unfortunately, there is nothing in place that forces the public health agency to alert the public," said Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority, an advocacy group also known as STOP. "The public is unaware of what little is being done."
Rockland Commissioner of Health Dr. Joan Facelle said the county consulted with other state and federal agencies and followed their recommendations. All reported or suspected E. coli cases were investigated thoroughly and responsibly, she said.
"We did what was considered the best and most reasonable approach," she said.
The BJ's meat is unrelated to the recall announced last week of 19 million pounds of hamburger suspected of harboring E. coli that was distributed by ConAgra Beef Co. of Greeley, Colo.
Congressional Democrats are asking the Agriculture Department to explain why it took months to order a recall of the 19 million pounds of meat suspected of sickening at least 23 people nationwide.
The strain of E. coli that makes people sick, E. coli 0157:H7, originates in the intestines of cows and is passed to people through meat — often ground beef. An infected person can transmit the disease through hand-to-hand contact with others, which local investigators said appeared to be the case in a recent outbreak in Monsey.
E. coli and other food-borne pathogens cause an estimated 76 million cases of human illness annually in the United States. More than 325,000 people are hospitalized each year and there are up to 5,000 deaths — mostly children and the elderly.
There have been 26 cases reported in Rockland since the end of May. All but two occurred among children in Monsey. The cause of that outbreak will probably never be known, health officials said. It was likely spread through the community by person-to-person contact.
But investigators traced the source that sickened Katelyn Koesterer and her neighbor to hamburger meat from BJ's.
It took six weeks, however, to make that determination. The Koesterers were first told by health officials that the meat they served their family had to have been contaminated with the bacteria sometime after it was sold by the store.
Investigators reached that conclusion because they tested four samples taken from the store on June 7 — weeks after the Orangeburg family bought it on May 12. There was no sign of E. coli in the June meat packets.
The Koesterers made hamburger patties from the meat — used some and put the others in the freezer for later use. That led investigators to theorize that the meat was inadvertently contaminated with E. coli after the family bought it — a scenario that food experts said was highly unlikely.
It wasn't until another local family informed the Rockland Department of Health weeks later that they had a package of unopened chopped meat bought at the store the same day that BJ's was identified as the source.
That meat, bought by Joy Fojtlin of Orangeburg, also contained E. coli, she was told by the health department. Tests on the meat showed that it carried the same strain as the meat eaten by Katelyn and her neighbor.
Because BJ's is a membership club, the store has detailed information about customer purchases. The company traced 131 people who bought the meat at roughly the same time and sent letters on July 17 asking them to return the meat to the store for refunds.
As of Friday afternoon, no one had, BJ's spokesman Jeff Berman said.
Even if they had, the company, which also has stores in Yorktown Heights and Paramus, N.J., would have destroyed the meat without testing it for the bacteria, he said.
The voluntary recall has not been extended to any other store except the one in West Nyack, he said.
To date, no public agency has issued any warning to consumers about the tainted meat sold at BJ's in May.
Facelle said she was assured by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets that BJ's was taking the proper steps to inform its customers of the danger.
"Our goal is to educate the public in general about proper handling of meat," she said. "If, in our opinion, it was felt that there was ever a risk that people were not notified, we would have done something like that."
Most of the meat was probably eaten before the contamination was identified. A public health agency also has to be careful not to make people worry needlessly, Facelle said.
"Something that is done too cavalierly can induce a lot of undue panic and anxiety," she said.
The county worked closely with the state Agricultural and Markets Department, the agency that informs the public about food recalls.
Jessica Chittenden, spokeswoman for the state Agriculture and Markets department, which is responsible for food inspections, did not return repeated telephone inquiries from The Journal News. She has said in the past that the agency works in conjunction with the United States Department of Agriculture when investigating meat contamination.
Federal law does not give government agencies the power to order a company to recall food, said Matt Baun, a spokesman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the USDA.
"It's up to the company to do that," he said.
No company has ever refused to recall tainted meat, said Kim Essex, spokeswoman for the National Cattleman's Beef Association, a Denver group that represents the nation's 800,000 cattle producers.
"The safety of our food supply is of utmost importance to us," she said. "Without it, consumer confidence is at risk. We want to make sure that the meat that we feed the nation and our families is safe."
As soon as E. coli contamination is identified and a recall is undertaken, the USDA alerts the public by releasing information about the outbreak, Baun said.
"As soon as we get a positive sample back, we notify the public," he said.
But no such warning was issued about the West Nyack meat, he confirmed Friday. He could not immediately explain why.
"This BJ's case is one of the oddest quote unquote recalls I have ever seen," said William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who has represented hundreds of victims of E. coli and other food-borne illnesses.
The public should have been notified about the BJ's meat as soon as the sample from the Koesterers' came back positive, said Marler, who is representing the family and their neighbors.
"Not sending out that notification was unconscionable," he said.
And relying on the meat industry to police itself and decide when and if to do a recall does not serve the public well either, he and other food safety advocates contend.
"I don't think most people realize how much is left up to the meat companies," said Serena Gordon, a Croton-on-Hudson resident who became seriously ill after eating an E. coli-tainted hamburger five years ago. "No one is policing them."
At the very least, a public agency should inform the public of the danger, she added.
The meat industry maintains that it is capable of protecting the public from food-borne illness.
"The voluntary recall practice is one that actually works," Essex said. "When the USDA asks for a recall, the companies cooperate."
The public can also do its part to guard against the disease by making sure that meat is cooked thoroughly enough to kill the bacteria, she said.
But food safety advocates maintain that even thoroughly cooked meat can still sicken consumers.
"The industry is always trying to blame the victim," said Donley, whose 6-year-old son died in 1994 after eating a contaminated hamburger. "But, the point is, this bacteria shouldn't be in the meat in the first place."
STOP, the group she leads, advocates changes to the system that would give government more oversight and require stepped up inspections.
That would be a good first step, said Ann Koesterer, whose daughter has been in and out of Westchester Medical Center since she ate the tainted hamburger in May. The girl may still require surgery, and faces a lifetime of complications related to the bacteria, she said.
"Katelyn was in the ICU with kids with cancer and other diseases that we don't have cures for," she said. "E. coli is preventable. There is no reason this should happen in this country."