When an outbreak of foodborne E. coli swept through three Midwest states 15 months ago, lives were devastated. Among them: a 2-year-old Inver Grove Heights girl, who suffered kidney failure and faces a lifetime of health -difficulties, and a Cottage Grove woman, who nearly died amid multiple surgeries.
Health officials connected the outbreak to a Green Bay, Wis., meatpacker whose ground beef was sold in the Twin Cities at Cub Foods stores. Now, the last of the victims' lawsuits are winding their way through the courts, filling in details about how the outbreak happened and bringing a nagging question back to the forefront: Can you trust ground beef?
Advocates for the victims, including the nation's best-known lawyer in foodborne-illness cases, are stirring up doubts. As they see it, the illnesses follow directly from an inherently flawed meat-safety system: First, filthy plants churn out bacteria-laced ground beef while increasingly powerless government regulators watch from the sidelines. Then retailers sell the meat, shifting the problem to the consumer.
"This is the classic way that most people get E. coli illnesses," said William Marler, a personal-injury attorney from Seattle who represents Sonja Pearson, the Inver Grove Heights toddler. "It's not at restaurants. It's not from fast-food places. It's taking the ground beef home and cooking Swedish meatballs the way your mother did."
Late Friday, Marler announced a settlement in the case of Sonja, now 3. Details of the settlement were not disclosed.
Representatives of the meatpacker and the retailer say ground beef is safe if consumers handle it properly and cook it at temperatures that are hot enough, they told the Pioneer Press.
But in interviews and court documents, each defendant has also blamed the other and questioned the other's safety practices:
• Supervalu, parent company of Cub Foods, cites previous violations by the meatpacker of government health-and-safety standards. Those violations should have alerted plant officials to the risk of E. coli contamination, Supervalu says.
• American Foods Group, owner of the Green Bay processing plant, contends that Supervalu contaminated the meat, perhaps by mixing in beef from other sources.
The charges are scheduled to be hashed out at mediation sessions starting next month that could determine whether the lawsuits go to trial or are settled.
Victims say they're not in it for the money; they want to get their care paid for — and send a message. Said James Pearson, whose daughter, Sonja, had the kidney failure: "Supervalu and American Foods and the meat industry, in general, take people for granted. Something should be done about it."
'HOW IN THE WORLD?'
The 40 victims of the outbreak were felled by Escherichia coli O157:H7, a cause of foodborne illness virtually unknown 20 years ago. Now, however, it makes an estimated 73,000 people sick and kills dozens more each year in the United States. Most of the illnesses come from eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef.
The November 2000 trouble began with hamburgers, meatballs and even that Minnesota skillet favorite: hot dish. Mike and Jackie Braunwarth saw all three of their children admitted to the hospital with severe cramps, bloody stools and dehydration after a spaghetti and meatball dinner — first Trey, 6, then John, on his 4th birthday, and then the boys' 2-year-old sister, Katie.
"Our first thought was, 'How? How in the world did they get this?' " Jackie recalled.
For Sonja Pearson, it was much worse. Her family's meatball dinner landed their 2-year-old in Children's Hospital in St. Paul for more than a month, battling fevers, violent vomiting and a life-threatening fungal infection in her blood. She underwent dialysis every day because her kidneys stopped working, the result of a life-threatening condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, in which E. coli destroys red blood cells. Young children and the elderly are especially susceptible.
A year later, doctors are still treating Sonja for high blood pressure and other persistent ailments. Some doctors say, eventually, she'll need a kidney transplant, perhaps before adulthood.
As reports of illness piled up, four government agencies swung into action to find the source. Initially, the common link was ground beef purchased at Cub Foods stores in the Twin Cities, plus Mankato and Monticello, Minn., sometime after Nov. 1, 2000. Supervalu, the nation's 10th largest food retailer, announced a recall.
But as more reports began to turn up in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere in Minnesota, the trail led back to American Foods, which officials declared "the most likely source" of the contaminated meat. The processor disputed the finding but agreed to recall more than 1 million pounds of ground beef.
Investigators observed that American Foods shipped meat in 10-pound "chubs" to a Supervalu warehouse in Hopkins, which then — without opening the packages — distributed them to Cub stores. The Green Bay plant, state health officials said, "was the only common point in the distribution system that could explain all of the cases associated with Supervalu." The agencies concluded the beef had been processed by American Foods on Nov. 2 and 3, 2000.
But the evidence was circumstantial. Investigators lacked laboratory proof that E. coli was in the meat before it left American Foods.
The victims' lawyers, poring over government documents, believe they unearthed warning signs that were overlooked.
Marler contends public records show American Foods twice before supplied E. coli-tainted meat to Supervalu. Once was in 1998, when Cub Foods recalled 462 pounds of ground beef sold in Illinois. The second time was in January 2000, when a Minnesota outbreak of 10 illnesses was traced to beef sold at Cub, although Minnesota health officials could not determine where Cub got the meat.
Supervalu spokeswoman Rita Simmer and attorney David Evinger said the retailer met with American Foods in April 2000 to demand cleaner meat. American Foods executives promised improvement but failed to deliver, Evinger said.
Supervalu stopped buying from American Foods and has drawn attention to dozens of violations issued by federal inspectors at the plant, including instances where meat was contaminated with fecal matter or salmonella. Feces is a favorite breeding environment for E. coli. Supervalu says American Foods didn't follow up on the violations by testing for the bacteria.
Records show U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors issued 161 "noncompliance reports" at the Green Bay facility from 1998 through 2000. An employee on the plant's kill floor was seen handling animal parts in a way that caused contamination. Employee locker and lunch areas were filthy.
American Foods representatives said the company had fewer violations than the industry average in 1998. More recent comparisons were not readily available.
It's unlikely the dispute will reach a jury. The remaining lawsuits — several others were settled — have been consolidated under Hennepin County District Court Judge Gary Larson and are scheduled for next month's mediation session. Larson last month rejected Supervalu's request that it be dropped from the lawsuits under a statute that protects retailers who innocently sell defective products.
Some experts say economic forces and modern slaughter techniques at meatpacking plants throughout the United States have made ground-beef production more susceptible to contamination and have put consumers at risk.
"They grind up a lot of animals. Your hamburger doesn't come from a single cow," said Michael W. Pariza, director of the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. "So one contaminated animal, even if the contamination is very, very small, can get into the whole batch. It can be so tiny, you can't find it."
E. coli can't be detected by the traditional "poke and sniff" methods used by government inspectors watching animal parts pass by on production lines. So in recent years, the USDA has proposed moving to a more science-based system in which industry, under federal oversight, takes more responsibility for screening out hazards. The department also randomly tests ground beef for E. coli. In the year 2000, only 1 percent of 5,000 samples contained the bacteria.
Critics, including an agency watchdog and the inspectors' union, say the new approach has actually reduced consumer protection by putting the industry on what is essentially an "honor system."
Among ideas for improvements:
• Fred Pritzker, the lawyer for the Braunwarth children, says more protections are needed at each step in the food chain. "Why can't this stuff be tested, every batch, before it leaves the plant?" he asks.
• Marler, the attorney for Sonja Pearson, wants to see grocers use their leverage as the food processors' customers and insist on cleaner factories and slower assembly lines to reduce the spread of bacteria.
• Pariza, the food researcher, says the answer is irradiated beef, which health officials have endorsed but consumers have resisted. Widespread testing would make food too expensive for American tastes, he believes.
Like many affected by the outbreak, Jackie Braunwarth has come up with her own reforms at the dinner table.
"We don't eat hamburger to this day. I don't know that we will ever go back," she said. "We've switched to turkey and (vegetable) burgers and things like that. My sons will eat at McDonald's, but they'll ask me all the time, 'Did you check it?' And if it's a little pink in the middle, they won't eat it."