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Put me out of business, please.

On March 1, 2006, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued additional Guidelines “for the Safe Production of Fresh-Cut Fruits and Vegetables.” This seems to have been prompted by the August 2005 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 infections of some thirty people, including children, who ate DOLE bagged, pre-washed lettuce. At least 245,000 bags of lettuce were recalled across the country. In that outbreak alone, eight were hospitalized, and one child developed acute kidney failure, all from eating bagged, "pre-washed" lettuce. However, this is not the first time the FDA has warned this industry, with sales nearing $4 billion annually, to clean up its act.

In 1998 the FDA published a “guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fruit and Vegetables.” In 2004 the FDA sent a letter to the lettuce and tomato industry to “make them aware of [FDA’s] concerns regarding continuing outbreaks … and to encourage the industries to review their practices.” All of these concerns by the FDA were prompted by fifty-five outbreaks tied to fresh fruits and vegetables between 1990 and 1998.

There have been more. A few examples:

·       In 2004, 13 residents of a California retirement center were sickened and 2 died after eating E. coli-contaminated "pre-washed" spinach.

·       In September 2003, nearly forty patrons of a California restaurant chain became ill after eating salads prepared with bagged, "pre-washed" lettuce. Dozens were hospitalized and several developed life-threatening kidney failure.

·       In July 2002, over fifty young women were stricken with E. coli at a dance camp after eating "pre-washed" lettuce, leaving several hospitalized, and one with life-long kidney damage.

Following these lettuce-related outbreaks, the FDA issued a stern warning to the industry “to reiterate our concerns and to strongly encourage firms in your industry to review their current operations…” In this letter, the FDA cited research linking some or all of the outbreaks to sewage exposure, animal waste, and other contaminated water sources. Now in 2006, the FDA asks the industry to address concerns about employee infectious disease as a possible contributing factor in these outbreaks. Will the industry listen? Will the industry clean up its act and stop poisoning its customers? Will the industry put me out of business?

I am a trial lawyer who has built a practice on food pathogens. Since the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1993, I have represented hundreds of families who were devastated for doing what we do every day – eating food. This may prompt some readers to consider me a blood-sucking ambulance chaser who exploits other people’s personal tragedies.

If that is the case, here is my plea:

Put me out of business, please.

For this trial lawyer, E. coli has been a far too successful practice - and a heart-breaking one. I am tired of visiting with horribly sick kids who did not have to be sick in the first place. I am outraged with a food industry that allows E. coli and other poisons to reach consumers. So, stop making kids sick and I will happily move on. Here is how:

Use common sense – stop using water that is contaminated with cattle and human feces to irrigate. Wash fresh fruits and vegetables. Provide workers in the fields and factories with adequate restroom and hand-washing facilities, and if they are ill with an infectious disease, do not let them work. These simple, common sense steps are good for your customers and good for your business.

None of this will stop E. coli entirely. This microscopic poison has been around a long time and is bound to pop up again. But these steps will help make our food supply safer, and will enable us to keep our most vulnerable citizens - kids and seniors - out of harm's way.

And, with a little luck, it will force one damn trial lawyer to find another line of work.

William D. Marler is a Seattle trial lawyer who represents victims of food-borne illnesses, and the father of three daughters.


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