Lightning Strikes Emmpak and Excel again - and again


SEATTLE, WA -- The deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacteria has struck yet again – this time sickening at least 59 people in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. The culprits seem to be all too familiar to Wisconsin residents. Excel, the parent company of Emmpak was, according to State Health Department officials, linked to an outbreak in which dozens were sickened and one was killed in the summer of 2000. This latest outbreak occurs at the end of the Milwaukee Sizzler restaurant outbreak litigation, after a summer plagued with ground beef recalls, and just days after the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a major policy shift in its Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) testing procedures.

At present, the USDA employs thousands of inspectors across the nation to inspect hundreds of plants that produce millions of pounds of beef at processing plants and retail outlets. However, the US General Accounting Office (GAO) warned in a recent report that the USDA's food samplings are so scattered and infrequent that there is little chance of detecting microscopic E. coli or any other pathogen, except by chance.

“The USDA announcement that it will increase the frequency of sampling for E. coli and other pathogens is a step forward. What they really need now is to give inspectors actual authority to sample meat and stop its distribution as soon as a pathogen is detected,” said food safety attorney William Marler, of the Seattle law firm Marler Clark. “This would mean implementing a sampling and recall system that provides a reasonable chance of preventing another outbreak.”

“USDA should also consider giving its inspectors mandatory recall authority,” Marler continued. Mandatory recall authority is required by Sen. Tom Harkin's Safer Meat, Poultry and Foods Act of 2002.

In addition to increasing sampling and tests, and giving inspectors the authority to require recalls, Marler thinks USDA should require the meat industry to document where specific lots of food are sold. “That way, food can be recalled quickly if a pathogen is detected. In most E. coli outbreaks, there is no recall because retailers do not know where the meat came from, and processors rarely step forward.”

In response to the USDA’s proposed changes, American Meat Institute President, J. Patrick Boyle, stated Tuesday, “The meat industry knows that only thorough cooking by food preparers can guarantee with 100 percent certainty that E. coli O157:H7 is eliminated from every hamburger we consume. It's not a fact we try to hide. He went on to state, “Like so many consumer products -- from cars to car seats -- our products are safe when used properly.”

Marler’s response to this statement was, “Who notices the little labels on meat that you buy in the store? The ones that tell you to cook the meat to 160 degrees – of course they also say USDA inspected too. The labels do not say ‘THE USDA INSPECTION MEANS NOTHING. THIS PRODUCT MAY CONTAIN A PATHOGENIC BACTERIA THAT CAN SEVERELY SICKEN OR KILL YOU AND/OR YOUR CHILD. HANDLE THIS PRODUCT WITH EXTREME CARE.’ One wonders why the meat industry does not want a label like that on your pound of hamburger.”

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William Marler, managing partner of Marler Clark, represented a nine year old girl in her $15.6 million settlement in the Jack in the Box E. coli case in 1993. In 1998, Marler Clark resolved the Odwalla Juice E. coli case for the five families whose children developed HUS and were severely injured after consuming contaminated apple juice for $12 million. Since 1993 Marler Clark has successfully resolved well over a thousand food-borne illness matters. The firm currently represents 30 victims of the ConAgra E. coli outbreak, and sponsors Web sites about E. coli O157:H7 and about E. coli litigation.

More about the Emmpak E. coli outbreak can be found in the Case News area of this site.