Marler Clark posting E. coli genetic fingerprints from recalls

A prominent personal-injury law firm specializing in foodborne illness cases has begun posting on the Internet the genetic fingerprints of E. coli O157:H7 strains associated with recalls of ground beef.

The Seattle-based firm Marler Clark says it is posting the information, which it has received under formal Freedom of Information Act requests, as a public service. Individuals who were sickened by E. coli O157:H7 infections can compare the fingerprints taken from their own samples to those taken from contaminated meat to see if there is a link. If the genetic patterns match, this could provide valuable evidence about whether the recalled food product might have caused an illness or an outbreak.

Marler Clark says on the site it is "hoping to advance the cause of food safety, and to assist health departments in determining the source of outbreaks."

While consumer advocates cheered the publication of the information, they lamented that it is being done by a law firm, rather than the federal government.

An industry official acknowledged that there is some public benefit to making the information available, but expressed some concern about how the data might be used.

"People have a right to know who the hell poisoned their kids." - Bill Marler

Seeing a relationship between a recalled food product and an illness could substantially increase the chances of a successful lawsuit, although it would not make an airtight case. Making the patterns widely available could identify additional illness victims and possibly lead to a class action lawsuit against a particular company. Such a find would benefit not only the victims and their families, but also Marler Clark, which has won multi-million dollar awards and settlements on behalf of their clients from food companies.

Another industry official, however, said there is little for the public to gain from this type of exposure because the recalls were conducted several months ago and the potentially harmful product is no longer on store shelves. The biggest beneficiary would be Marler Clark, if the Web site could help attract clients.

"The public health benefit comes not from splashing things across the newspaper or the Web, but from getting the product off the market," the industry official said.

Attorney Bill Marler dismisses charges that his firm is using the information merely to line its own pockets. He said that the term "recalled meat" is a misnomer because the vast majority of the meat in question is never recovered. By the time the recall starts, most of it has been sold and most likely consumed. People may have been sickened and not known what it was that made them ill.

"People have a right to know who the hell poisoned their kids," said Marler. "Whether they choose to be compensated is their choice."

Marler is now investigating to see if a series of serious E. coli infections in the Midwest and Oregon, which were being looked at as isolated events, are actually related to large nationwide recalls of ground beef conducted last year. One person died from the infection and several children suffered from hemolytic uremic syndrome, Marler said.

It is still unclear whether the so-called PFGE patterns from the victims match the recalled meat, but if it does that would be "awful damn good evidence as a start," said Marler. "It would be more than enough to get it in front of a jury."

He said that initially USDA resisted handing over the PFGE patterns, claiming Marler Clark was going on a "fishing expedition." Government officials acquiesced after the law firm faxed over a draft of a legal complaint against the department.

"What we are doing is the only way health departments can link a specific illness with a specific recall at a specific time," he said.

The data is not found directly on the firm's homepage Instead it uses a Web address similar to USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, The site contains the genetic fingerprints from more than a dozen meat companies forced to recall ground beef due to E. coli O157:H7 contamination, including several industry giants, such as Excel Corporation and IBP.