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Out of a Church Kitchen and Into the Courts

NEBRASKA BEEF has been accused of making people at a church social very sick; one elderly woman died. Meatballs served at a smorgasbord of the Salem Lutheran Church in Longville, Minn., were tainted with deadly E. coli bacteria, and Nebraska Beef was named as the culprit in lawsuits filed by the dead woman’s husband and by Ellie Wheeler, one of 17 other people who became ill.

All of this is straightforward enough, and you might expect that it would lead to an out-of-court settlement, with the meat company vowing to clean up its act.

But Nebraska Beef, based in Omaha, is pursuing a very different tactic.

For starters, the company has denied that it is responsible for providing bad meat, and it has provided a culprit of its own. It blames the Salem Lutheran Church — contending in its own lawsuit that the volunteer church ladies who prepared the food were negligent.

Nebraska Beef’s lawyers are even preparing to depose the minister.

The church’s lawyer, Leatha G. Wolter, said she was stunned that the company blamed the church; she urged the minister not to talk to the press before his deposition.

“These are really lovely ladies,” Ms. Wolter said. “They have collectively, oh, 500 years of cooking experience between them. These women have been cooking years and years and years without incident.”

Stanton Hawkinson, the widower of Carolyn Hawkinson, the 73-year-old woman who died, said he was disappointed that Nebraska Beef was dragging the church into court. Mr. Hawkinson had sued Nebraska Beef, a local grocery store and a distributor. Nebraska Beef later sued the church.

“To think that you can put out a contaminated product and then go after the people who prepared it,” he said.

The case dates back to July 17, 2006, when members of the church bought about 40 pounds of ground beef and 20 pounds of ground pork at the local grocery store, Tabaka’s Super Valu. The next day, about 20 church volunteers spent two hours preparing for a smorgasbord that was to be held the day after that.

The meatballs were made in a mixer in a center island in the church kitchen; the cooks wore gloves while making the meatballs. The volunteers also cooked turkeys, sliced ham, prepared a mashed-potato dish and a carrot salad, and chopped eggs and potatoes for a potato salad.

But according to a report by the Minnesota Department of Health, the ladies of Salem Lutheran Church didn’t do everything right, from a food-safety perspective. There are three sinks in the kitchen, one for hand-washing and two for food preparation, but all three were used for hand-washing, the report said.

And when the meatballs came out of the oven, it added, the cooks didn’t pull out a meat thermometer to make sure they were cooked to the correct temperature. Instead, they cut a few open and determined that they were done, the report found.

In Nebraska Beef’s complaint against the church, the company’s lawyer, Gary J. Gordon, cites the health department’s report that “there was a high potential of contamination between ground beef and other food during food preparation.” He also said that the problems were entirely “the direct and proximate result of the negligence” of the church.

Denis W. Stearns, a Seattle lawyer who represents Mr. Hawkinson and Ms. Wheeler, said it was unusual but not unprecedented for a meat company to sue the victims. His colleague, Bill Marler, is less diplomatic, calling Nebraska Beef’s lawsuit “one of the boldest, yet boneheaded, moves I have ever seen.”

Mr. Stearns also says the meat industry and federal regulators have long tried to shift the responsibility for meat safety to consumers, emphasizing, for instance, that ground beef must be cooked to 160 degrees and checked with a meat thermometer.

IN an interview, Mr. Gordon said he had not yet seen any conclusive evidence that links Nebraska Beef to the outbreak; lawyers for the plaintiffs maintain that there is a genetic match between E. coli found at a Nebraska Beef slaughterhouse, and that found in the victims’ stools.

That issue is to be sorted out in court.

Kirk Smith, who oversees the food-borne illness unit of the Minnesota Department of Health, said Nebraska Beef “is the most likely source” of the E. coli contamination. He said the evidence pointing to Nebraska Beef was compelling, though not 100 percent definitive.

As for suing the church, Mr. Gordon argued that the smorgasbord wasn’t a casual family dinner, but a money-making project for the church that was open to anyone willing to pay the freight.

“When you are running it as a money-making venture, why should you be any different from McDonald’s?” Mr. Gordon said. “Nobody is suing the old ladies, to use your term. In the same way that when McDonald’s gets sued, no one sues the nice teenage kid behind the counter.”

At least not yet.

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