E. coli cases spark nationwide response
A year after two Orangeburg girls got sick from eating hamburgers contaminated with E. coli bacteria, their experiences are focusing national attention on the call for reform of meat-safety regulations.
In a letter sent last week to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., pointed to the cases of the two Rockland children as an example of the need for a new national system to trace meat and poultry from slaughterhouses to grocery store shelves.
"The safety of our food supply is at risk as long as meat and poultry producers are not required to implement traceability systems and maintain records that allow for rapid identification of sources of contamination," Waxman, ranking member of the Government Reform Committee, wrote in a letter dated Wednesday to USDA Secretary Ann M. Veneman.
The letter also was signed by U.S. Rep Eliot Engel, D-Bronx, whose district includes Orangeburg, and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Schumer said he would introduce similar legislation in the Senate, possibly as soon as this week.
What happened to 6-year-old Katelyn Koesterer and her 11-year-old neighbor, Christina Graff, after a backyard barbecue last May where they ate hamburgers made from meat purchased at the BJ's Wholesale Club in West Nyack illustrates why such a system is necessary, both lawmakers said.
"One year ago this week, two young girls from Rockland County, N.Y., became severely ill after eating ground beef contaminated with a life-threatening strain of E. coli," Waxman told the USDA. "Federal, state and local health officials never found the source of this outbreak because the information and records to trace the products implemented did not exist."
A system to put a bar code on every package of meat at each step of its journey could have pinpointed where the food got contaminated and allowed inspectors to prevent others from ingesting the meat, he said.
Katelyn's mother, Ann Koesterer, agreed.
"There is a paper trail for insurance, for cars, for real estate, for airlines," she said. "How can we put food on the table if we're not sure where it came from?"
Ann Koesterer and her husband, Dennis, bought 90 percent lean ground beef on May 13, 2002, at BJ's in West Nyack. They made hamburger patties out of the meat, cooking some at the barbecue and putting others in the freezer.
Katelyn ate at least two hamburgers over the next several days and Christina ate one at the Koesterer's home. Both girls became ill with what was diagnosed as poisoning from E. coli O157:H7 bacteria. That strain originates in the intestines of cows and is passed to humans through meat contaminated by cow feces.
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.
The bacteria was found by health inspectors in unused meat in the Koesterers' family freezer after the girls got sick.
But because the meat had been taken out of its sealed package, health officials suspected it might have been contaminated after it left the store.
Then another local family who read about what happened to the Orangeburg girls turned in a package of unopened meat bought around the same time at BJ's. It contained the same strain of E. coli that had infected Katelyn and Christina; county health officials asked BJ's to recall the meat.
Christina's illness ran the more common course: She developed bloody diarrhea, severe stomach cramps and chills. She was treated at home and eventually made a full recovery. Her family is suing BJ's for $200,000.
But Katelyn developed the most severe complications of E. coli poisoning: hemolytic uremic syndrome. The life-threatening condition occurs in about 5 percent to 10 percent of people who get E. coli poisoning.
The 6-year-old spent nearly a month at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla being treated for kidney failure, pancreatitis, a blood-clotting disorder, seizures, a stroke, abdominal pain, respiratory distress and high blood pressure, among other conditions.
Katelyn, now 7, still suffers from complications from the illness, according to a $30 million lawsuit her family filed in January against BJ's. The E. coli bacteria destroyed her pancreas, leaving her with insulin-dependent diabetes.
The second-grader takes multiple insulin injections daily. Her pancreas no longer makes enzymes needed for digestion, and she must take multiple pills before she can eat.
"Everything in our life changed," Ann Koesterer said.
In papers filed in March in U.S. District Court in White Plains, BJ's denied that the meat they sold was contaminated.
The company placed blame for the girls' illnesses on Katelyn's parents, whom the company maintained had acted with "carelessness, recklessness and negligence" in handling and preparing the food.
It is common for manufacturers who sell contaminated meat to blame the victims, said Seattle lawyer William Marler, who is representing the Koesterers and Graffs.
Marler, who specializes in E. coli litigation, also is representing the parents of a 3-year-old Bergen County, N.J., boy who developed the illness after eating ground beef purchased at the BJ's Wholesale Club in Paramus, N.J. — on the same day last May that the Koesterers bought their meat at the West Nyack store.
The boy, Owen Langan, also developed hemolytic uremic syndrome and spent two weeks in the hospital, said his father, Joseph.
Tests done on Owen showed that the strain of E. coli that made him sick was an exact genetic match to the bacteria that sickened Katelyn and Christina, according to records from the Bergen County Department of Health reviewed by The Journal News.
The Langan family hired Marler to bring a lawsuit against BJ's. Marler said he would file in the next two weeks.
"We were not notified of any occurrence of E. coli by any member of BJ's in Paramus last year," BJ's spokeswoman Nancy Sodano said. "Thus, we did not recall any meat in Paramus."
The company "fully cooperated with the regulatory authorities, taking appropriate action with the knowledge and approval of those authorities," she said.
The discovery of a third case of E. coli contamination linked to BJ's illustrates the need for a better traceability and recall system, Marler said.
He criticized county, local and federal officials for not acting more aggressively to get the BJ's meat off the shelf.
Six weeks after the Koesterers bought the meat, BJ's issued a voluntary recall to 131 people who had purchased the ground beef at the West Nyack store during the same couple of days. No one else returned meat to the store.
Marler said that as soon as health officials knew that two children had been sickened by meat bought at BJ's and another unopened package from the same store was found to contain E. coli, health officials should have pressed for a wider recall.
The identification of a third, genetically identical case in the New Jersey boy should have prompted a national recall at all BJ's stores, he said.
Impossible to trace
Rockland Commissioner of Health Dr. Joan Facelle said her agency did everything it was empowered to do under the law. Local health agencies do not have the authority to order recalls, she said.
BJ's has told Marler that it ground together meat product from 12 different sources to produce the beef that the Koesterers purchased. The company maintained it did not keep records of where the meat came from so it could not trace the source of the tainted meat, Marler said.
The USDA has said that it did not call for a wider recall because the source of the meat sold by BJ's could not be determined.
"We had no basis for requesting a recall because we had no link between illnesses and product from a federally inspected establishment," Garry L. McKee, administrator of the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, wrote to Waxman. "The trace-back for the source of the contamination went as far as BJ's but no further."
"It's outrageous that the response is, 'Oops, we don't know where the meat came from because the system is not set up for us to find the source,' " said Karen Lightfoot, a spokeswoman for Waxman.
An industry spokesman said meat producers already were taking steps to minimize E. coli contamination and a tracing system was unnecessary.
"We all have a certain amount of financial resources, and those resources should be invested where they have the greatest effect," said Gary Weber, spokesman for the National Cattleman's Beef Association, a Denver group that represents the nation's 800,000 cattle producers. "Not one penny spent on a tracing system will stop the problem in the first place."
The industry is researching new methods of preventing cattle from shedding E. coli into their intestines, where it passes into feces, he said.
Ann Koesterer said a tracking system was necessary to prevent other families from going through what her family had experienced.
"I can think of no good reason why this happened to Katelyn," she said. "But I can think of a million good reasons why it shouldn't happen to any other child."