Meat supplier to settle suit

Plaintiffs fell ill during last fall's E. coli outbreak

A Green Bay meat distributor has agreed to settle a lawsuit with a family at Great Lakes Naval Training Center and two Wisconsin residents who were sickened during an E. coli outbreak last November, lawyers for the company and the plaintiffs said.

In the settlement, the distributor, American Foods Group Inc., did not claim responsibility for the E. coli outbreak, which included cases in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, said Gary Hansen, the firm's lawyer. The monetary amount of the proposed settlement was not disclosed.

Reginald Burton, who lives on the Great Lakes base near North Chicago, said he and his wife took their daughter, then age 1, to the emergency room three times because they did not know that E. coli contamination was making her so sick.

Burton and his wife also came down with severe diarrhea and nausea.

"It was a dreadful experience for my family and I to go through," Burton said.

Last week, Dominick's Finer Foods dropped American Foods as its meat provider after two voluntary recalls of meat produced by American Foods.

On Aug. 13, Dominick's recalled 159 pounds of ground beef sold in its Carol Stream store after a routine test by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found the presence of E. coli bacteria.

On Thursday the chain recalled packages of ground beef sold or produced in the Patriot Boulevard store in Glenview on July 12 or 13 after state health officials said meat bought there July 12 tested positive for E. coli and likely sickened one person.

DNA testing links the E. coli organism present in that sample to 11 other cases, but health officials do not know where those people came into contact with the bacteria.

Hansen, a Minneapolis attorney who represents American Foods, said the firm routinely tests for E. coli and has never had a positive response.

"In our mind there has been no link with our product at all" to the E. coli outbreak last fall, Hansen said. "On the other hand it's not unusual to have some lawsuits because people suffered. And at some point, particularly with smaller claims, you get to the point where you have to make a practical business decision."

Hansen also said he believes the firm will not be found responsible for the current outbreak. "I think we'll just have to wait and see what develops," he said.

Since July 1, 40 Chicago-area residents have been sickened by E. coli bacteria, state health officials said. The same time period ordinarily would see 21 cases in the same region, they said.

"The investigators are talking to a lot of people, finding out what their common exposure might be," said P.J. Burtle-McCredie, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Burton said he hopes the lawsuits will persuade meatpackers to make their production and packing methods safer.

The Burtons bought the meat in a Cub Foods. They and the two Wisconsin residents have pending lawsuits against Eden Prairie, Minn.-based SuperValu Inc., Cub Foods' parent company, said William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who is representing the plaintiffs in those suits and the action against American Foods.