Dole settles E. coli lawsuits

At least 17 people got sick after eating prepared bagged lettuce

Five lawsuits filed in response to an E. coli outbreak traced to Dole Fresh Vegetable bagged salads in Minnesota last fall have been settled.

Bill Marler, an attorney for the nine plaintiffs involved, said the settlements with parent company Dole Food Company Inc. were reached in the past month. Among the plaintiffs was a 12-year-old girl who suffered kidney failure after eating the salad and was featured in a "Dateline" report televised in April on E. coli and bagged salads.

Both parties declined to disclose the details of the settlements.

"We're very pleased to get the cases resolved," said Marler, an attorney with Seattle's Marler Clark law firm which has represented clients against Odwalla and Jack-in-the-Box in other foodborne illness cases.

Marler praised Dole and its insurance company for "stepping up and ultimately doing the right thing."

"In many instances, companies don't do that," he said, adding that some companies will fight cases like this for years in court. "I think Dole correctly got this thing behind them.... It's the way corporations should act."

Eric Schwartz, president of Dole Fresh Vegetables, said the settlement doesn't mean the company is admitting guilt.

"It's just settling," Schwartz said. "At this point, we still don't know exactly what the cause was. There's not been a definitive source at this point and (I) don't know if there will be."

In September and early October, at least 17 people became sick in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area after eating three kinds of Dole bagged lettuce, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

All of the people were infected with E. coli 0157:H7, the most dangerous strain of the bacteria, which can cause stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea. In the most serious cases, the bacteria can lead to a serious complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can cause kidney failure and death.

Because the bagged salads were distributed nationwide, the Food and Drug Administration issued an alert to consumers against eating the specific Dole products Oct. 2.

At least 11 affected people purchased Dole products at the Rainbow Foods grocery chain in Minnesota. Two of the plaintiffs were from areas outside of Minneapolis, including one person from Wisconsin and an elderly woman from Oregon, whose stool samples showed she was infected with E.coli sharing the same DNA as those infected in Minnesota, Marler said.

Though there were at least two cases outside of the Twin Cities area, Schwartz said the biggest mystery remaining for him is how Dole's nationally distributed product was contaminated in one concentrated area.

In fact, the source of E.coli in produce-related contaminations -- including four since 2002 connected to produce grown in the Salinas Valley -- is a question that has troubled the agricultural industry which has self-imposed, best practices related to safe food handling.

After a letter from the FDA in November that said the lettuce industry could do more to protect fresh-cut produce consumers from E. coli outbreaks, lettuce industry leaders including Schwartz, scientists and representatives from regulatory agencies met in Salinas to coordinate a plan of action to tackle the issue of food safety.

Specific actions that emerged from the meeting range from a new comprehensive best-practices guide released in March for growers, processors, retailers and everyone in between who handles fresh-cut produce to the development of a research agenda to provide functional, actionable information.

Marler said it's clear that the "industry needs to firmly look at how 157:H7 (E.coli) can enter in to the system."

He also suggested the the industry might need to think carefully about continuing to sell the ready-to-eat, pre-washed products that have been implicated in these outbreaks.

"If they can't seem to clean it up, maybe the industry is going to have to come to grips with the way they are selling the lettuce," he said. "Maybe it isn't the safest way to serve lettuce."

Schwartz disagreed, pointing out that the meat industry hasn't stopped selling hamburger meat, which has been associated with E. coli outbreaks.

"One illness is one too many," he said. But the incident rate of such outbreaks in bagged salad is so low, "it certainly doesn't warrant shutting the segment down."