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First E. coli Lawsuit Filed Against Aunt Mid’s Produce

CLARIFICATION: The Michigan Health Department has linked illnesses to lettuce produced by Aunt Mid's produce. To date, no left-over lettuce has tested positive for the E. coli bacteria.

The first lawsuit stemming from a recent lettuce-borne E. coli outbreak was filed today in the Circuit Court for Ingham County, Michigan against Aunt Mid’s Produce. The petition was filed on behalf of Michigan State University (MSU) student and East Lansing resident Samantha Steffen. Ms. Steffen is represented by Marler Clark, a Seattle food borne illness law firm, and by Michael Heilmann of the Detroit-area attorney Michael Heilmann.

In September 2008, at least 40 people were sickened by the virulent E. coli strain O157:H7. The ill were concentrated in Michigan, and included students at MSU Lansing as well as inmates at a Michigan jail. The outbreak was traced to contaminated lettuce distributed by Aunt Mid’s Produce of Detroit, Michigan. Genetic fingerprinting matched the E. coli bacteria on the lettuce to the stool samples of the victims.

Samantha Steffen consumed lettuce on campus in early September, and by September 13, she began to experience nausea, abdominal cramps, and frequent bouts of diarrhea. In the next couple of days, her diarrhea turned bloody, and she asked a friend to take her to the emergency room where she was treated for severe dehydration. A stool sample taken there revealed that she was infected with E. coli O157:H7. After her release from the ER, Ms. Steffen continued to experience painful cramps, nausea, and bloody diarrhea. She has yet to fully recover from her illness.

“The Michigan Health Department has linked these illnesses to lettuce produced by Aunt Mid's Produce,” said Ms. Steffen’s attorney William Marler. “Despite requests that they reveal the source of the tainted lettuce—a pivotal step toward ensuring that there is no additional tainted product in the supply chain—Aunt Mid’s has refused to do so. Food distributors are responsible not only to their direct consumers but also to the food supply system as a whole. By withholding information about a contamination event, Aunt Mid’s Produce is not doing their part to keep food safe for everyone.”

Although E. coli outbreaks are often associated with meat, produce-borne outbreaks have become more frequent in recent years. The Center for Science in the Public Interest noted that fully 25 percent of E. coli outbreaks from 1990-1998 were traced to produce. Data from the Centers for Disease Control show that over the last 12 years, twenty-two E. coli outbreaks have been traced specifically to leafy greens, including the spinach outbreak in 2006, which made more than 200 ill and caused four deaths.

The two firms representing Ms. Steffen have worked together in the past, most recently representing Michigan victims of the 2006 spinach E. coli outbreak.

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