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Suit in cookie dough illness

Family files lawsuit against Nestle after Highlands Ranch girl gets sick

Peter Marcus, DDN Staff Writer

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Six-year-old Madison Sedbrook did what many little girls her age do — she ate cookie dough.

What would ensue for the Highlands Ranch child was a nightmare. Flu-like symptoms — including fatigue, fever, nausea and vomiting — turned into abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea. All from eating the clearly delicious, but nearly deadly raw cookie dough material.

Attorneys representing Sedbrook’s family filed a federal lawsuit against Nestle USA in Denver on Tuesday. The suit is one of the first in the nation after Nestle last week voluntarily recalled its Toll House refrigerated cookie dough products after the Food and Drug Administration warned of the risk of contamination with E. coli bacteria.

A second lawsuit was filed Monday in California by an 18-year-old woman, and a third suit was filed in Washington yesterday, said an attorney with the Seattle-based law firm Marler Clark, a foodborne illness law firm representing victims of the cookie dough outbreak.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the nationwide outbreak now encompasses 70 people in 30 states. Thirty people have been hospitalized, and seven have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, what doctors determined Sedbrook had developed as a result of her E. coli infection.

Her battle with illness began on April 20th, landing the little girl at a Highlands Ranch emergency clinic on May 4th. As Sedbrook’s condition worsened, her family finally brought her to Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree on May 6th. She was discharged from the hospital on May 9th, but was soon rushed to the Children’s Hospital in Aurora on May 13th. It was at this hospital that Sedbrook became anemic and required a blood transfusion.

Sickened by E. coli

It was not until around May 18th that tests indicated that the little girl was suffering from E. coli O157:H7, associated with the Nestle cookie dough outbreak. Sedbrook continues to recover from her illness today.

One of her attorneys, Drew Falkenstein, estimates the cost of medical bills at anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000. The family is still awaiting final billing numbers from the various medical agencies involved. The lawsuit seeks to cover the medical costs.

One concern is that because Sedbrook was so close to total kidney failure, there could be lifelong complications, which would raise the cost of medical bills, as well as the negative impact on her life.

Nestle said in a statement that it advises consumers not to eat its cookie dough products raw.

“We want to strongly advise consumers that raw cookie dough should not be eaten,” said the company. “This message also appears prominently on our packaging.”

But Falkenstein says companies like Nestle package and market their products in a way that does not discourage consumers from eating such products raw.

“Everybody eats these products raw, it’s as simple as that. And Nestle well knows that,” he said. “A significant percentage of the people who eat this product are eating it raw, and they know it and they’re marketing directly to that. You take a look at the shape and the size of the package — it’s so easy to just grab it from the refrigerator, squeeze out a little bit, eat it, put it back in and let it go.”

How did the product get contaminated?

Falkenstein said he is curious to see what will be revealed during the discovery process, especially how the E. coli strain could have found its way into the cookie dough. The strain is usually found in cattle manure, say health officials.

The attorney believes Americans should be worried about standards in the food industry and whether current laws are tough enough to protect consumers.

“I don’t just focus on the fact that we’ve got a cookie dough outbreak, I look at the last three or four years, and this is no longer a ground beef problem, it’s no longer a raw foods problem. This is about products that are billed to us and marketed to us as being ready to go … What is next, who knows?” asked Falkenstein. “It is scary, it is something for Americans to be concerned about.”

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