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The Litigated Dish: Recounting the Most Startling Recent Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

During my time at Marler Clark, I have had the chance to witness and work on some of the most tragic and profoundly disturbing foodborne illness outbreaks our firm has encountered.

Here are a few of the recent, particularly alarming outbreaks—some of which I had extensive involvement with—presented in no particular order:

  • The Baby Food Outbreaks: Infant Formula Shortage and Applesauce Contaminated with Lead

The 2022 Infant Formula crisis left a lasting impact on caregivers nationwide. It all began with an FDA investigation, prompted by reports linking powdered infant formula products manufactured by Abbott Nutrition to severe infections in children. The FDA conducted an onsite inspection of Abbott’s Sturgis, Michigan facility and uncovered insanitary conditions, including the presence of the bacteria Cronobacter sakazakii. In response, Abbott voluntarily recalled the implicated products, triggering immediate and far-reaching consequences. An acute shortage of infant formula swept across the country, causing significant worry and distress among parents and caregivers. Online support communities, like the Facebook group "Baby Formula Search and Swap: Parents Helping Parents," emerged, and platforms such as "Find my Baby Formula" were created to track and alert users about formula availability. Notably, the Biden-Harris Administration took steps to address this unprecedented formula shortage, highlighting the gravity and broad impact of the situation. Tragically, this outbreak claimed the lives of two infants.

The 2023 outbreak tied to WanaBana, Schnucks, and Weis brand applesauce garnered significant attention due to the alarming discovery of exceedingly high levels of lead in their products. Lead poses grave health risks, especially for children. Even minute concentrations, as low as 0.035 parts per million (ppm), could impact children's intelligence and behavior, per the World Health Organization. Elevated lead exposure can cause irreversible damage to the brain and central nervous system, leading to coma and death. The FDA's investigation and subsequent sample testing revealed lead levels in the apple puree at 2.18 ppm, surpassing the maximum recommended limit by over 200 times. Austrofood, the cinnamon supplier for WanaBana, acknowledged their cinnamon as the likely source of the contamination. One of their cinnamon samples revealed an exceptionally high lead level of 5,110 ppm. In a more recent development, on January 5, 2024, the FDA detected chromium, another metal contaminant, in Austrofood’s cinnamon, measuring at 1201 and 531 ppm. This ongoing outbreak has affected at least 86 individuals thus far, most of them infants and children. In addition to the 86 cases confirmed by the CDC, there are additional reports of 209 probable cases and 26 suspected cases.

  • The World's Deadliest Outbreak of Listeriosis

In 2017 and 2018, South Africa faced the world’s largest and deadliest outbreak of listeriosis. The Health Minister identified Tiger Brands' polony—a ready-to-eat, processed meat product—as the culprit and ordered an immediate recall in December 2017.

This outbreak affected multiple South African provinces, with Gauteng reporting 58% of cases, mainly among women aged from birth to 93. Between January 2017 and July 2018, there were 1,060 reported cases and 216 fatalities. The term "reported" is key here, as numerous affected individuals resided in rural areas with limited access to healthcare. Additionally, listeriosis was not categorized as a reportable disease in South Africa until after the outbreak, hampering data collection even from diagnosed hospital cases.

Listeriosis, a severe foodborne bacterial illness, poses significant risks to pregnant women, individuals over 65, and those with weakened immune systems. With a high fatality rate of 25%, it is associated with miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature labor. The impact on infants and children among the 216 fatalities in this outbreak was particularly devastating, underscoring the vulnerability of this demographic.

  • The "Recurring, Always Ongoing" Outbreaks: Romaine Lettuce, Sprouts, and Cantaloupe

This trio needs no introduction. Since 2018, there have been close to a dozen outbreaks involving leafy greens (many linked to romaine lettuce), 3 outbreaks related to sprouts, and at least 3 outbreaks associated with cut melon or cut cantaloupe. I make a conscious effort to avoid these foods due to their frequent appearance on the FDA’s list of ongoing investigations.

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