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Minnesota woman, Cargill settle E. coli case

By Steve Karnowski, in the Bismarck Tribune

A Minnesota woman who became severely ill with an E. coli infection from a tainted hamburger has reached a settlement with the meatpacking arm of agribusiness giant Cargill Inc., both sides announced Wednesday.

Stephanie Smith, 23, of Cold Spring, and Cargill said the terms of the settlement were confidential, but that it will provide for Smith's care throughout her life. The former children's dance instructor was left paralyzed, with cognitive problems and kidney damage.

Smith became ill in 2007 after eating a patty produced by Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., a Wichita, Kans.-based unit of Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc. Her E. coli infection led to kidney failure. She went into seizures and was kept in a medically induced coma for three months.

Smith's battle to recover was the centerpiece story last year in a New York Times series that won a Pulitzer Prize. The story spurred several members of Congress to demand better enforcement of food safety laws and a pledge from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for stepped up efforts to fight E. coli contamination. The story traced how the beef trimmings that went into her hamburger came from four plants in the U.S. and Uruguay, and that while such scraps are particularly vulnerable to contamination, many companies including Cargill did not normally test them prior to grinding.

Her Seattle-based attorney, Bill Marler, said Smith's case continues to generate public and industry discussion about the importance of better food safety.

"Stephanie's tragedy has taken on a life of it's own, and hopefully it will continue to focus people on why food safety is so important," Marler said.

Cargill acknowledged responsibility when it first learned of her injuries and has been providing financial help to her and her family, the joint statement said. Cargill said it "deeply regrets" her injuries, and that it has invested more than $1 billion in meat science research and new food safety technologies to eliminate E. coli and other sources of food-borne illnesses.

"Cargill continuously invests in food safety technology," said Mark Martin, a spokesman for Cargill Meat Solutions. "There certainly are things that have preceded the situation with Stephanie Smith, things that will continue to evolve into the future. Food safety - as you can imagine being an agriculturally based company for much of our business - is a top priority and always will be."

Neither Marler nor Martin would comment on the terms of the settlement, which still requires court approval. And Marler declined to allow Smith or her mother to comment. He said they wanted to keep her focused on rehabilitation.

"She's still wheelchair bound," Marler said. "She's making progress. She has been able to walk with braces and a walker. She's continuing to work very, very hard at her rehabilitation for both her cognitive issues and her physical issues."

When they filed the lawsuit in federal court in Minnesota in December, Marler said Smith's medical bills totaled more than $2 million and would likely reach the tens of millions of dollars. He also predicted then that she would need multiple kidney transplants. Marler declined Wednesday to say if he still stands by those estimates on her medical bills, but he said multiple transplants remain a risk.

"I think she's very hopeful that it won't happen; unfortunately the physicians say it is likely to happen," he said.

Smith still hopes to dance someday. Marler said it's hard to predict if she will.

"She would never want to say never," he said. "I think that's clearly her goal and you've got to admire her for that. ... She's in many respects like a professional athlete, She works every day on her physical injuries. It's a lot of hard work. We all should get that much physical exercise."

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