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Most claims over E. coli outbreak settled

Growers say emphasis on safety working


Herald Staff Writer

December 18, 2007

A majority of pending claims against three produce companies implicated in the 2006 E. coli spinach outbreak have been settled for undisclosed sums, while tighter food-safety practices enacted this year are being lauded for preventing another food crisis in the produce industry.

Seattle attorney Bill Marler said Monday he has reached settlements in 56 of 72 cases in which he represents persons injured during the September 2006 outbreak of E. coli-contaminated baby spinach.

The tainted produce — which was blamed for three deaths and sickening 205 people — was traced back to Central Coast spinach grown by Mission Organics on a San Benito County ranch that was processed by Natural Selection Foods in San Juan Bautista and packaged for Dole Food Co.

The lawsuits and claims were against the three companies, Marler said. "We've worked really hard to resolve the cases fairly," he said. "We've moved things right along."

Negotiations are scheduled to start in February in 16 more cases, the majority of which involve persons who suffered very serious health effects from the E. coli-tainted spinach.

Marler said he represents the majority of people who've brought legal claims stemming from the outbreak. In all, about 100 people filed claims, though others still could be brought in the future, he said. The cases involving deaths already have settled, he said.

Marler wouldn't disclose settlement amounts, saying they are confidential.

As attorneys worked to resolve the 2006 outbreak cases, new stringent food-safety practices were adopted by the produce industry in California and took effect in April.

Arizona has set up a similar program and other states are moving in the same direction, while the industry is seeking a comprehensive, federal program, said Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association of Central California.

"The industry has taken very effective, proactive steps to substantially reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses," Bogart said. "The fact there have been no reported illnesses or outbreaks is evidence of that."

In February, the state adopted new food-safety standards and set up an industry group, the Leafy Green Handlers Marketing Board, to oversee the program. That was a direct response to the E. coli outbreak, which was an unprecedented crisis for the produce industry, Bogart said.

Marler said it's too early to tell if the industry-supported marketing agreement will be enough to prevent future outbreaks. "My hope is the spinach and lettuce industry heard the message ...and keep vigilant," he said.

"Hopefully that's what they have done, and we won't see something like this again," he said.

In September, Dole voluntarily recalled bagged mixed salad from nine states and Canada because of the presence of E. coli. There were no reported illnesses from the contamination. Two of the lettuce varieties in the Ohio-processed salad came from the Salinas Valley.

Joe Pezzini, chairman of the state Leafy Green Handlers Marketing Board and vice president of Ocean Mist Farms, said, "I believe the program is making a difference. Time will tell."

The fact that there have been no produce-related outbreaks this year and only "a couple small recalls," Pezzini said, is evidence of the new program's effectiveness.

"People are far more cognizant of food safety," he said. "But where the food meets the soil is an ongoing, every-day (issue). Every farmer who grows leafy greens will tell that."

Pezzini said a national federal program is needed. "We don't believe food safety stops at the state border," he said.

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