Separating the Chaff From the Wheat: The Reality of Proving a Foodborne Illness Case


William D. Marler J.D., Esq.
Marler Clark - The Food Safety Law Firm

I have been litigating foodborne illness cases for nearly two decades. The key to my success has been to find a quick, reliable method of distinguishing between legitimate food poisoning claims and suspect ones. In my experience, the food industry, from farmer to retailer to restaurant, tends to over-emphasize the specious claim and under-value the legitimate claim. It is an unfortunate situation that increases the likelihood of the industry missing important measures to improve food safety.

By failing to improve food safety, the industry runs the risk of actually poisoning consumers and attracting expensive litigation that often results in public relations nightmares. My goal has been to bring forth only legitimate claims that have caused substantial personal damages and force the food industry to think about the real costs of food safety.

The Chaff – Cases We Turn Away Every Day

At Marler Clark, people who have been sickened, and believe that their illness resulted from consumption of a particular food item, contact us virtually every day. The vast majority do not make it through our initial screening process, due to a lack of a reliable link between the illness and a specific source. There are a number of methods for recognizing suspect food poisoning claims, but it begins with understanding the science.

Incubation Period

Although incubation periods—the time between ingestion of a foodborne pathogen and the onset of symptoms—are only ranges, and wide ones at that, they can still be used to identify a suspect food poisoning claim. For example, the claimant who

insists that an E. coli O157:H7 illness was sparked by the hamburger eaten an hour before the onset of illness does not have a viable case. The incubation period of E. coli O157:H7 is one to ten days, typically two to five days.

Incubation Periods of Common Foodborne Pathogens

PATHOGEN

INCUBATION PERIOD

Staphylococcus aureus

1 to 8 hours, typically 2 to 4 hours.

Campylobacter

2 to 7 days, typically 3 to 5 days.

E. coli O157:H7

1 to 10 days, typically 2 to 5 days.

Salmonella

6 to 72 hours, typically 18-36 hours.

Shigella

12 hours to 7 days, typically 1-3 days.

Hepatitis A

15 to 50 days, typically 25-30 days.

Listeria

3 to 70 days, typically 21 days.

Norovirus

24 to 72 hours, typically 36 hours.

When I screen a case, the incubation period is one of the first things I scrutinize. To illustrate my point, here is a case my firm turned away:

“Within Two Hours of Eating”

After getting out of church yesterday morning, Sunday, December 12 I stopped at [a restaurant] to grab a sandwich and a small Dr. Pepper at 12:02 pm. I still have my receipt. I had not eaten anything prior to eating the sandwich, and I still am unable. Within two hours of eating that sandwich I became very ill. My fever went up from 98.6 to 100.2; I got diarrhea, stomach cramps, headache and chills. I am still very sick, I’m very weak, I can’t really eat anything, and I’m having chills. I’m at work trying to work and I feel like crap...I don’t know what to do, I called the restaurant and the manager is supposed to be calling me back when he gets in. Can you please help me?”

A quick consultation of the chart above reveals that this person’s lunch is most likely not the source of the illness. The incubation period is too short. A diagnosis of Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter, or E. coli O157:H7, for example, all of which have incubation periods longer than two hours, would also effectively rule out the meal as a source of the illness.

It is possible that the person became ill after ingesting Staphylococcus aureus—a pathogen with an average incubation period of 2-4 hours—but given the prevalence of the bug, and without knowledge of other ill persons who also consumed food at the same restaurant around the same time, it is very difficult to establish a causal connection between the meal and the illness.

“The Food Looked/Smelled/Tasted Funny”

In most situations, pathogenic bacteria are completely undetectable to the consumer. Customers who complain that they know they got a foodborne illness from a particular meal because the food tasted funny are, very likely, wrong.

Many consumers with legitimate complaints tend to retroactively assign a negative connotation to a meal once the health department has identified it as a source of an outbreak. This common instinct should not tear down an otherwise viable claim. But a claim that something tasted funny, without other proof linking a particular food to illness, is suspect. For example, here is another case we turned away:

I have recently read articles and lawsuits that you have pursued regarding contaminated food. I am hoping that you may be able to give me your professional advice or recommendation. My husband recently opened a bottle of salsa and smelled an unusual odor but chose to eat it regardless, thinking that it was just his nose. After taking two bites and tasting rather badly, he found what appeared to be a rather large piece (approx. the size of the back of an adult’s fist) of human or animal flesh. Even though he didn’t seek medical attention, he did become very nauseated. I do feel that the manufacturer should be held responsible for this mishap. Thank you for your time and consideration.”

“Gross-Out” Claims

Another situation that is fertile for false claims is the alleged discovery of something other than food in a food container. While certainly not the type of thing a food processor may want on the news, claims centered on finding, but not eating, some undesirable agent in food rarely have value. This example illustrates the point well:

I opened a box of Buffalo wings and dumped them out on a plate to be cooked in the microwave. An unusually shaped piece caught my eye and I picked it up.

When I saw that the “piece” had a beak, I got sick to my stomach. My lunch and diet coke came up and I managed to christen my carpet, bedding and clothing. I want them to at least pay for cleaning my carpet etc. What do you think?”

In Between the Quickly Dismissed and the Clearly Compelling

How does one evaluate a legitimate foodborne illness claim? I rely on four primary tools. All four are important. Combined, they can establish an airtight case.

1. Health Department Investigation of an Outbreak or Incident

2. Prior Health Department Inspections

3. Medical Records

4. Lab Results

The Health Department Investigation of an Outbreak:

While statutes and regulations vary from state to state, all states have agencies tasked with monitoring bacterial and viral illnesses associated with food consumption. The illnesses monitored include E. coli O157:H7, Campylobacter, Salmonella, Shigella, Listeria, Norovirus, and Hepatitis A. For most of these pathogens, a positive lab result from a human sample (blood or stool) triggers a mandatory report to the local health authority and some type of follow-up investigation.

The scope of the investigation varies from case to case depending on the pathogen involved, the type of food, the associated illness, the number of persons who are or may be sick, and the local jurisdiction. These factors determine the strength and quality of documentation associated with an outbreak. In most situations, the results of the investigation are either made public by the health authorities or can be obtained through public records requests under disclosure Acts, like the Freedom of Information Act. The information in those reports can be used to support a legitimate foodborne illness claim.

It is very difficult to dispute a Health Department confirmed outbreak or even an isolated case. In litigating thousands of food poisoning claims arising out of scores of outbreaks, I have seen many defendants take issue with some or all of the health department’s conclusions regarding an outbreak. But I have yet to see a defendant successfully avoid liability where the health department concluded that the defendant’s food was the source of an outbreak. One likely reason for this is that, in general, health departments do good and careful work. Despite the occasional disagreement from the pinpointed member of the food service industry, most would agree that health departments are rather cautious and conservative.

In our experience, health departments do not prematurely point the finger. In addition, health departments are operating with a much higher burden of proof than that required by the civil justice system. Most epidemiologists will not confirm an outbreak without 95% confidence in a particular conclusion. Juries in a civil trial, on the other hand, only have to conclude that a company is more likely than not (51%) responsible for an outbreak. Finally, it has also been our experience that the jury is likely to accept the “neutral” determinations of the health department over the opinions of a defendant’s paid experts.

Example: Finley School District E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak

An excellent example of a jury’s faith in a health department’s investigation and conclusions was a case that I tried in 2001, Almquist et al. v. Finley Sch. Dist. The case arose out of an E. coli outbreak in the Tri-Cities area of eastern Washington State in October 1998.

Local and state health officials investigated the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. They concluded that the source was a ground beef taco meal prepared and served by the Finley School District at Finley Elementary School. The eleven plaintiffs—all minors—were identified as either “confirmed” or “probable” members of the outbreak.

All but one of the plaintiffs attended Finley Elementary School. Four of the children developed a severe complication of E. coli O157:H7, hemolytic uremic syndrome (“HUS”), which resulted in varying degrees of permanent kidney damage.

The child with the most severe injuries (F.M.) was the only plaintiff who did not attend the school and did not eat the implicated meal. F.M.’s older sister, however, did attend Finley Elementary and had eaten the taco meal. It was the plaintiffs’ position that this non-student had acquired an E. coli O157:H7 infection through exposure to her sister or another ill student. This phenomenon is known as “secondary infection.”

The defendant took issue with nearly every facet of the plaintiffs’ case and, in doing so, took on the task of attacking the health department’s conclusions, which were supportive of the plaintiffs’ case. For instance, the defendant disputed the health department’s conclusions that the taco meal was the source of the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. The defendant also disputed that F.M. had actually suffered an E. coli O157:H7 infection. F.M.’s stool did not culture positive for the E. coli O157:H7 bacteria, which is not uncommon. She had been diagnosed as having been infected, and the health department deemed her a “probable” secondary case. Finally, the defendant took the position that, even if F.M. had an E. coli O157:H7 infection, there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the taco meal was the source of her illness.

The case was bifurcated for trial, meaning liability and damages were tried separately. The liability portion of the trial lasted four weeks, and it resulted in a plaintiffs’ verdict. After trial, the jury was interviewed by the parties. Testimony from many of the health department officials involved in the investigation was, in the jury’s collective mind, highly persuasive.

Can the Plaintiff Make a Case Without Health Department Support?

Health departments will not report a “confirmed” outbreak, or pinpoint a restaurant as the “confirmed” source of a food illness, without statistical certainty. Without 95% confidence in a particular conclusion, health departments are likely to define individuals or outbreaks as “possible.” This is the case even where the confidence in a particular conclusion is well above the legal standard of more likely than not.

If the health department has investigated and found a claimant’s illness did not come from a particular source, the plaintiff will face the same uphill battle taken on by so many defendants. It is possible, however, for a plaintiff to make a claim for damages without a health department’s confirmation of an outbreak. In these cases, reliable expert opinion or examination of the health department investigators themselves can establish the source of a plaintiff’s illness with sufficient certainty to meet the legal burden of proof.

Proving a Case Using Prior Health Inspections/Violations

A common difficulty in investigating foodborne illness cases stems from the fact that the contaminated food has almost always been consumed by the time the source of an outbreak has been identified. In other words, the vehicle of transmission is gone. One way of overcoming this problem is by documenting a food service establishment’s sordid past. This is accomplished by compiling investigative reports of prior incidents or accusations of food contamination. Similarly, a history of failed health inspections or recurring problems with food production and service procedures can help build a case, using circumstantial evidence.

Supportive documents can be acquired through the discovery process afforded by litigation or through the Freedom of Information Act. The uncovered documents will help the plaintiff make his case in a variety of ways. Sometimes, there may be documentation of improper food handling procedures that can circumstantially prove the manner of contamination. In other situations, a list of improper techniques and code violations can serve as a tool for limiting a defendant’s trial options, or it can position a case for early and favorable settlement. Finally, particularly egregious or repetitive examples of improper food handling techniques can build a punitive damages case, in jurisdictions where such damages are available.

Identifying the Improper Procedure that Led to the Contamination of the Food

It is a rare case, at least with respect to restaurant-based food poisoning claims, when contaminated leftovers can be located by the time investigative agencies or lawyers are on the scene. This missing piece of the puzzle can be supplied, however, by identifying specific errors in the preparation of the suspected food or foods.

Improper Cooking Procedures

In 2007, a young girl suffered a particularly severe E. coli O157:H7 infection that left her with permanent kidney damage. She had eaten a hamburger purchased from a midsized southern California fast-food chain. Hamburgers have been commonly viewed as the source of E. coli O157:H7 infections in humans and nothing else in the child’s food history was a likely source of the infection.

By the time health department officials investigated, however, the case of hamburgers responsible for the girl’s illness was long gone. The health department did not find any food on site that tested positive for E. coli O157:H7. A thorough review of the restaurant’s current and prior inspections though, revealed a serious flaw in its cooking method that provided an explanation for the client’s exposure. According to the inspection report:

Hamburger buns are toasted on the grill immediately adjacent to the cooking patties, and it is conceivable that, early in the cooking process, meat juices and blood containing active pathogens might possibly splash onto a nearby bun.

In fact, on six separate occasions over a three-year period, the management of the restaurant had been advised of the dangers of cross-contamination of the hamburger buns by hamburger juices. Prior inspection reports also revealed that the chain’s cooking methods presented a high risk of cross-contamination. Once the plaintiff’s expert reviewed the documents and presented the findings, the matter settled quickly.

Improper Refrigeration

In another case, a Chinese restaurant in Ohio was the suspected source of an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in the fall of 2002. Again, no leftover food was available for testing. In addition, the restaurant was buffet-style, which complicated the identification of a single contaminated food item. During the investigation, however, it was revealed that a disproportionate number of ill patrons were children, and it began to appear that the culprit food might in fact be Jell-O. The health department investigation report provided the answer to the obvious question: how might Jell-O have become the source of an E.coli O157:H7 outbreak?

The report noted a host of food handling errors in the restaurant, none more important than this one: “raw meat stored above the Jell-O in the refrigerator.” Officials concluded “the likely source of E. coli O157:H7 in the Jell-O was from raw meat juices dripping on the Jell-O while it was solidifying in the refrigerator.” The defendant never seriously contested liability once plaintiffs obtained the report.

Improper Storage and Cooking Procedures

In 2006, a group of people who had attended a banquet hosted by a restaurant in Washington State fell ill days later. Many of the banquet goers tested positive for Salmonella, but leftover food items had either been discarded or had tested negative. The health department’s subsequent investigation of the event provided the information necessary to establish liability.

The food service establishment had violated state food regulations by “pooling” dozens, if not hundreds, of raw eggs in a single bucket for storage overnight. This process allows bacterial contamination from a single egg to taint exponentially larger amounts of food, thereby placing many more consumers at risk. The establishment subsequently used the raw eggs as a “wash” on a specialty dessert. Then, once again in violation of food code, the food workers failed to cook the egg thoroughly. When these actions were taken together with the fact that raw eggs are a particularly notorious source of Salmonella, the smoking gun was back in the defendant’s hands.

Patterns of Poor Food Handling Practices

In some circumstances, damaging inspection documents can also dissuade a defendant from contesting liability in front of a jury. In a situation where defending the case from a liability standpoint is a less than certain undertaking, defense counsel may be wary of admission of evidence that will make the defendant look bad in the eyes of the jury.

Improper Sanitation

In 2000, a producer and distributor of high-end fresh food items were identified by various health agencies as the source of a large Shigella outbreak on the West Coast. The firm, a relative newcomer to the food industry, operated with a marketing stance and inward belief in the high quality of its products. Health department inspections, however, revealed serious problems at the company’s production facilities, including the lack of fully operational bathrooms for employees, insects near food production sites, and evidence of rodents in the facility.

Through discovery, it was also uncovered that a major commercial purchaser of the firm’s product had conducted its own inspection of the facilities, and had refused to purchase any more products until a number of significant upgrades were made to the facility.

In another case two years later, health officials suspected a Seattle-area restaurant as the source of a medium-sized outbreak of food poisoning. Even though one of the patrons experienced an unusually severe acute illness, medical practitioners and health officials were unable to pinpoint the particular pathogen that had sickened the various individuals.

The defendant and its insurer were initially unwilling to concede liability in part based on the unidentified causative agent in the outbreak. But prior inspection reports revealed a consistent pattern of poor food-handling practices. The repeat occurrences of numerous health code violations led the health department to close the restaurant and temporarily revoke its license. In the end, the proposition of contesting liability proved too risky for the defendant.

Punitive Damages

Punitive damages are damages intended to punish and dissuade the offending defendant (and others like it) from engaging in particularly egregious behavior. Much in the same manner as other products liability cases, evidence of knowledge of prior incidents of improper behavior can be the cornerstone of a punitive damages claim in a foodborne illness case. Because a food establishment must sign off on its inspection reports, these documents are useful in establishing both prior violations and the defendant’s prior knowledge.

For example, in 1996, fresh juice manufacturer Odwalla was identified as the source of a major outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 on the West Coast. Through discovery requests, my firm sought documentation of inspections of Odwalla products by governmental agencies. After overcoming strong opposition by Odwalla, we uncovered previously undisclosed inspection reports, including a report from the United States Department of the Army. The report revealed that the Army had inspected Odwalla’s production methods prior to the outbreak and, based on those inspections, refused to buy its products. In a letter to Odwalla, the Army stated:

We reviewed deficiencies noted in the report, which our inspector discussed with you at the time of the inspection. As a result, we determined that your plant sanitation program does not adequately assure product wholesomeness for military consumers. This lack of assurance prevents approval of your establishment as a source of supply for the Armed Forces at this time.”

Through further discovery, we recovered internal company emails reacting to the U.S. Army’s inspection and subsequent refusal to purchase products from the company. One employee suggested implementing a microbiological testing program to address some of the problems uncovered in the inspection. The following is a portion of an email responding to the employee’s suggestion:

…why are we doing it, why now, what do we WANT TO PROVE…IF THE DATA is bad, what do we do about it. Once you create a body of data, it is subpoenable… you should look at this as though the Fresno Bee [a Sacramento newspaper] has looked into the results and asked a lot of questions…”

At the time of the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, the company had not adopted the suggested testing regimen. We filed a motion to apply California law regarding punitive damages due to Odwalla’s prior knowledge that its product was unsafe. With the punitive damages motion pending, the cases were resolved.

Proving a Case Using Medical Records

Medical records, assuming that one did in fact have treatment, become critical in proving a foodborne illness case. Evidence of a possible foodborne illness source can sometimes be found in the person’s medical treatment records, such as an Emergency Room notation of a suspected food or drink item, or a lab test result confirming an infection from a specific pathogen. Documentation is the key.

What Type of Medical Evidence Can Help Make a Case?

Laboratory testing of stool cultures, and less commonly blood cultures, can identify the particular pathogen causing a claimant’s illness. In reviewing a claim, it is important to recognize that lab test results are not always available, as health care providers do not always order laboratory testing.

Each foodborne pathogen carries with it an expected incubation period—the amount of time expected to transpire between exposure to the pathogen and the onset of symptoms. The incubation period for some pathogens is very long, resulting in a large possible exposure window, and might be unhelpful in certain situations.

In most situations, however, it can still be useful. For example, people often assume that the last meal they consumed before falling ill was the culprit. With many pathogens, however, this is very unlikely. The typical incubation for E. coli O157:H7, for example, is 2-5 days, with an incubation range of 24 hours to 10 days.

Most common bacterial and viral pathogens found in food share reasonably similar symptoms—nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, aches, chills, and the like. Isolated on their own, these symptoms cannot be used to determine the specific pathogen affecting a claimant. But they can be part of the puzzle. For example, yellow skin and eyes, or jaundice, often characterizes Hepatitis A infections. E. coli O157:H7 infections are most often characterized by excessively painful, bloody diarrhea.

Proving a Case Using Lab Tests

Health care providers may, in some instances, order testing of an ill person’s blood or stool to help determine the cause of illness. In most circumstances, a positive result must be reported to a local public health agency pursuant to statute or regulation. Many states require reporting of positive tests for a number of pathogens, including E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Shigella, Listeria, Hepatitis A, Campylobacter, and others. It is the reporting of these positive test results that often triggers health department investigations and creates awareness of outbreaks.

When a sample of a form of bacteria, such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, or Shigella, is taken from a stool sample, or a piece of contaminated food product, it can be cultured to obtain and identify the bacterial isolate. Bacterial isolates can be further broken down into their various component parts, creating a DNA “fingerprint.”

The process of obtaining the DNA fingerprint is called Pulse Field Gel Electrophoresis, or PFGE. It operates by causing alternating electric fields to run the DNA through a flat gel matrix of an agarose, a polysaccharide obtained from agar. The pattern of bands of the DNA fragments—or “fingerprints”—in the gel after the exposure to the electrical current is unique for each strain and sub-type of bacteria. By performing this procedure, scientists have been able to identify hundreds of strains of E. coli, as well as strains of Listeria, Campylobacter, and other pathogenic bacteria.

Proving a Case Using PFGE

The PFGE pattern of bacteria isolated from contaminated food can be compared and matched to the PFGE pattern of the strain isolated from the stool of infected persons who consumed the contaminated product. When PFGE patterns match, they, along with solid epidemiological evidence, are proof that the contaminated product was the likely source of the person’s illness.

When paired, PFGE and epidemiological evidence are extremely potent evidence to support causation. This is particularly true if the PFGE pattern has not been reported elsewhere. For example, suppose two unrelated persons both test positive for a genetically identical, unique strain of E. coli O157:H7 in a given town within a matter of days. If the subsequent, mandatory health department inquiry into these two illnesses reveals no other common exposures between the two people other than a hamburger from the same restaurant on the same day, finding a credible, alternate explanation for their illnesses can prove nearly impossible.

Proving a Case with PulseNet

PulseNet is a national network of public health laboratories that performs DNA “fingerprinting” on bacteria that may be foodborne. The network identifies and labels each “fingerprint” pattern and permits rapid comparison of these patterns through an electronic database at the CDC to identify related strains.

In 1993, a large outbreak of foodborne illness caused by E. coli O157:H7 occurred in the western United States. In this outbreak, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) performed DNA “fingerprinting” by PFGE and determined that the strain of E. coli O157:H7 found in patients had the same PFGE pattern as the strain isolated from hamburger patties served at Jack in the Box restaurants.

A more prompt recognition of this outbreak and its cause may have prevented more than the estimated 750 illnesses. As a result, the CDC developed standardized PFGE methods and, in collaboration with the Association of Public Health Laboratories, created PulseNet, an early warning system for outbreaks of foodborne disease. Scientists at public health laboratories throughout the country can rapidly compare the PFGE patterns of bacteria isolated from ill persons and determine whether they are similar, thus indicating an outbreak linked to exposure to a common source of bacteria.

At present, PulseNet tracks five foodborne disease-causing bacteria: E. coli O157:H7, nontyphoidal Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter and Listeria Monocytogenes.

The Impact of a Negative Test

While the lack of a laboratory test or a negative test result may detract from the strength of a claimant’s case, it can sometimes be easily explained by other factors.

Antibiotics

The consumption of antibiotics, whether or not related to the illness at issue, essentially renders a stool culture worthless. A negative result after commencement of antibiotics is common.

Untimely Testing

For different pathogens and different people, the speed with which the pathogen exits the body varies widely. The symptoms can continue well after the pathogen has been expelled from the body. Testing that occurs more than a few days after the onset of symptoms is unreliable, and a negative result at that time is not necessarily indicative that the pathogen had not been previously present.

No Test Given

Health care providers do not order blood and stool cultures for all, or even most, cases of gastroenteritis. In many cases, there simply will not be testing to include in the determination of the source of illness.

Looking at the circumstances as a whole

With an isolated illness, the lack of a positive stool culture may be problematic for a claimant. In the context of most outbreaks, however, it is not a significant problem. Circumstantial evidence may easily compensate. One such example is where one member of a dining party does not get tested, and others do. Three of four persons who all ate together fall ill with the same, documented pathogen. The fourth demonstrates the same symptoms in the same time frame, but his or her doctor did not order stool cultures. Liability can still be established without the positive stool culture.

Testing the Food

In food poisoning cases, there is generally no food available to test because, not surprisingly, it was eaten. But when leftover food or uncooked portions of the food that were eaten is available and does test positive for the given bacteria or virus, it is powerful evidence that the food likely caused of the illness. This is especially true if the bacteria or virus in the food is a PFGE match to the ill person’s stool culture isolate.

Legitimate Cases: What does a legitimate foodborne illness claim look like?

Real cases with real injuries will get a company’s attention and drive changes in behavior. Here are four cases that illustrate that point:

1. The Case of the Ammonia Chicken Nuggets

The plaintiffs were a group of school children and teachers who consumed chicken contaminated with ammonia on November 24, 2002 at the Laraway Elementary School in Joliet, Illinois. The poisoning resulted from the acts and omissions of three corporate entities. In 2001, the State of Illinois, through the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), contracted with Tyson to have United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodity bulk chicken processed into chicken tenders for the National School Lunch Program (NLSP). The processing was completed at the Tyson plant located in New Holland, Pennsylvania. The state of Illinois also contracted with Lanter Refrigeration to warehouse the chicken tenders.

For an as yet unknown reason, Tyson’s delivery of the chicken greatly exceeded Lanter’s shipping and storage capacity. Lanter then contracted with Gateway Cold Storage to house the overflow chicken products at its facility in St. Louis, Missouri. The tenders were stored at the facility along with large amounts of other food intended for consumption at Illinois schools.

On November 18, 2001, there was a large anhydrous ammonia leak on the 6th floor of the Gateway St. Louis facility. Massive amounts of food destined for the school lunch program, including the chicken tenders, were exposed to ammonia.

Inexplicably, Gateway and Lanter notified neither the local health authorities, nor the Illinois State Board of Education. Even more remarkably, Gateway and Lanter continued shipping food from the facility, without any concern for the leak or the obvious risks it presented to consumers – particularly school-aged children. According to officials at the St. Louis City Health Department (SLCHD), Lanter and Gateway shipped approximately 800,000 pounds of product from the facility after the leak without any notice to consumers.

In fact, it was a shipment of potato wedges to Illinois schools that first alerted authorities in Illinois to the leak. On November 27, nine days after the leak, schools began complaining to the ISBE that they had received potato wedges that stunk of ammonia. Once complaints about the potato wedges had prompted an inquiry about the storage/condition of the food, Gateway and Lanter admitted over the phone to the ISBE that a leak had in fact occurred.

On November 27, 2001 ISBE sent a letter to Lanter. The letter acknowledged the leak and stated, “[A]t the advice of the IDPH, any food coming in direct contact with the ammonia leak should be destroyed.” The letter advised Lanter to place all food connected with the ISBE on hold, pending further evaluation.

The FDA at this time “determined to place all product stored at Gateway at time of ammonia leak on hold until procedures are established for clean-up and treatment of products to dissipate ammonia odor.”

Gateway and Lanter immediately began devising a plan that would allow them to release product that had been exposed to the ammonia leak. The original plan submitted to the FDA by Gateway and Lanter was rejected. The Missouri Department of Health complained, “the firm did not commit to any testing for ammonia residue in the product.”

On or about December 7, 2001, the FDA approved a plan for the testing and release of FDA-regulated products, i.e. fruits and vegetables. It is not clear when, if ever, any agency approved any plan for release of the chicken tenders.

At this point, Gateway began shipping food to the schools again. The chicken tenders, however, were apparently not ready for release. There were 361 boxes of chicken tenders, each with 20-22 pounds of product in 5 individual plastic bags. The boxes were cardboard, and were labeled as Tyson product. The tenders had been so thoroughly exposed to the ammonia leak that the boxes and labels were either destroyed, saturated with ammonia and the ammonia smell, or both. Gateway, Lanter, and Tyson made the decision that rather than destroy the food, and swallow the small loss associated, that they would re-box, re-label, and “recondition” the boxes, and then send them on to the schools. The original plan was to re-box the tenders some time in February 2002.

In the meantime, it was becoming evident that other product shipped from the Gateway facility still stunk of ammonia, and was being rejected by schools and other public programs that received it. In January of 2002, a cafeteria worker in Champaign, Illinois complained about the powerful smell in some beef patties, and refused to serve them to school children.

In March of 2002, ISBE reported that a number of schools were rejecting products from the Gateway facility due to the odor of the boxes. ISBE noted that “some commodities are not in tightly sealed vapor proof packaging and the food itself has an odor.” ISBE eventually asked and received permission from the USDA to use the rejected food as animal feed. Officials at Lanter and Gateway were informed of the schools’ complaints.

The re-packaging of the chicken tenders did not occur in February 2002. Piecing together the exact manner in which the chicken tenders were eventually re-boxed is complicated by the discrepancies in reports given by Lanter to health agencies after the students’ illnesses.

Nonetheless, it is clear that in late June 2002, the chicken tenders were shipped from the Gateway facility to Lanter. At the same time, a request was made that Tyson send new labels for each box. The labels were designed to look exactly like the original labels on the chicken tender boxes. When the boxes were shipped, Lanter noted “some of the cases were in ‘bad’ shape and just did not look good, probably due the handling during the reconditioning.” Apparently the product had already been through a reconditioning process designed to remove the ammonia smell from the boxes and product. While this process was designed to remove the smell, which might alert the recipient to the presence of ammonia, nothing was done to actually remove any ammonia from the product.

In the same time frame, a Tyson Representative visually inspected the product. He suggested that samples of the product be sent to Tyson for ammonia testing at the Tyson lab in Springfield, Arkansas. While it is not clear if the testing was ever actually completed, Tyson nonetheless contacted the ISBE and informed them the chicken was safe. Tyson called ISBE on July 3, 2002 and “notified [ISBE] the product is fine and [they] will change the casing.” Either the testing was never done despite the representations to ISBE, or was done so poorly as to miss what would later prove to be ammonia levels more than 100 times the legal limit. Either way, Tyson’s blessing on the chicken helped move it closer to the Laraway Elementary School.

The chicken tenders were re-boxed and re-labeled in early July 2002. When questioned by the IDPH, Lanter originally stated that it had no knowledge of the re- packing, and that no one at Lanter had participated. Shortly thereafter, Lanter told IDPH investigators that it had been “determined” that Lanter did in fact rebox roughly 320 cases of Tyson chicken tenders that were received from Gateway in three loads on June 24 and 25, 2002. Lanter said that the re-boxing was done at a Lanter warehouse on July 5, 2002.

New labels from Tyson were affixed to the boxes of chicken tenders. Although the original plan had called for the presence of a USDA employee at the re-boxing, the process went forward without supervision. Following the re-boxing, Lanter began shipping the chicken tenders to schools in Illinois. The evidence of their ammonia exposure, i.e. the smell and the damage to the packaging, had been removed, but the threat to the students remained.

When school began in August 2002, so did complaints to ISBE regarding food that smelled of ammonia. These complaints were, as a matter of course, passed on to Lanter. At this time, the complaints did not involve the chicken tenders, which had apparently not yet arrived. In October of 2002, the Chicago Heights school rejected chicken tenders due to an ammonia smell. Lanter was notified but none of the defendants took any action to notify schools that had received the chicken tenders of the re-boxing, or of the complaint from Chicago Heights. Other schools joined in with complaints shortly thereafter. Still, the defendants did nothing to warn the other recipients of the chicken, despite having a list of those schools in their possession.

On November 25, 2002, the chicken tenders were served to students at Laraway elementary school. Within minutes of consuming the chicken 157 students, roughly half the school fell ill. The scene verged on total chaos. Students and teachers were running into the halls vomiting, with their throats and noses burning. Students panicked. School administrators called in ambulances, and children were taken to five local hospitals.

The IDPH would later verify the obvious—that the illnesses were caused by high concentrations of ammonia in the chicken. The chicken was the Tyson product that had been shipped by Lanter, and stored at the Gateway facility during the 2001 leak. Remarkably, even without considering the leak, the food should never have reached the students, as it had been in holding well past the 270-day legal limit. According to the USDA, Lanter had a consistent problem with rotating stock to avoid such problems.

On December 2, 2002, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a branch of the USDA, verified very high ammonia levels in the chicken tenders through its own laboratory analysis. This verified an independent laboratory at the behest of IDPH conducted testing. The tests revealed contamination of the tenders with ammonia at 500-2,000 ppm. According to the IDPH the legal limit for such concentrations is 15 ppm.

To read the full article with the remaining case examples, see the attached PDF

About the Author

William (Bill) Marler is the nation’s leading attorney representing victims of foodborne illness and a stalwart advocate for improved food safety in the United States and abroad. His work began in 1993 when, as a young lawyer, he won record settlements for the families of children made seriously ill in the infamous Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak. He has since lead his law firm, Marler Clark, to the apex of the legal world by representing thousands of victims of food poisoning.

Marler has continued to litigate against the food industry and to attract clients who need his services. In 2007, a 19-year-old dancer, Stephanie Smith, sickened by E. coli-tainted hamburger was left brain damaged and paralyzed. Her story found its way to the front page of the New York Times in 2009 and landed the paper and its investigative reporter, Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize. Her case against Cargill settled shortly before trial in 2010 for an amount “to care for her for life.”

In 2009 Linda Rivera, a 57 year old mother of six from Nevada was stricken with what Dr. Siegler described as “the severest multi-organ (bowel, kidney, brain, lung, gall bladder, pancreas) case of E. coli mediated HUS I have seen in my extensive experience.” Linda’s story hit the front page of the Washington Post and became Senator Harry Reid’s touchstone for moving the Food Safety Bill in 2010.

Working with industry, academia, and government, Marler’s efforts to create a safer food supply have transcended the courtroom. His spends roughly half his time speaking around the world on the need for improved food safety. To bring discussion to the public, he publishes the acclaimed online newspaper Food Safety News and shares his own opinions and insights on his blog, www.marlerblog.com, which is read by over one million people annually.

Marler has petitioned the USDA to increase foodborne pathogen regulation and has commissioned private studies to test for unregulated pathogens in the food supply. In Congressional testimony, he has asked the United States government to “Put me out of business”, calling on it to pass updated, meaningful food safety laws. In 2011, his work was credited in the passage and signing of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the first major food safety update in decades.

Though his efforts to reform the food industry have come at the price of long hours and frequent travel, when he is at rest he can be found spending time at his Bainbridge Island home with his wife Julie and three daughters, Morgan, Olivia, and Sydney.

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