SAN FRANCISCO -- Four months before E. coli bacteria linked to unpasteurized Odwalla apple juice killed a young girl in Colorado and caused about 70 other infections, the U.S. Army rejected a proposal by the company to sell its fresh juices at commissaries because of concerns over the risk of food-borne disease.
An Army inspector, after touring Odwalla's plant in Dinuba on June 6, 1996, concluded that risks of "deterioration or adulteration" were posed in a food process that was unpasteurized and included no preservatives. She also found what she considered to be a high bacterial count in a sample.
Documentation about the inspection has surfaced in one of the lawsuits filed in Seattle against Odwalla on behalf of a Chicago girl, Amanda Berman, who suffered kidney damage after drinking fresh apple juice in 1996. She incurred $ 125,000 in medical bills that were subsequently paid by Odwalla.
If the Berman cases go to trial, food microbiologists will debate whether the Army inspector's finding of high bacterial counts was accurate or significant.
Lawyers for Odwalla's insurance company did not disclose documents pertaining to the inspection in response to requests for information from Seattle lawyers Bill Marler and Dennis Stearns, who represent Berman and other clients. They have asked a King County Superior Court judge in Seattle to impose sanctions on opposing lawyers for nondisclosure of what they believe is significant evidence that they discovered separately.
In Half Moon Bay, Chris Gallagher, a spokesman for Odwalla, said the documents reflected nothing more than the Army's "lack of interest in purchasing a large stock of fresh juice" at that time. He likened the Seattle lawyers' protest to "Paula Jones' lawyers filing charges that may not be relevant or implications that may not be the case."
Gallagher added, "We had a process (in 1996) that we believed wholly effective in producing safe, high-quality juice."
However, E. coli bacteria was ultimately identified in an Odwalla product and blamed for the death of 16-month-old Anna Gimmestad of Evans, Colo., who died of heart and lung failure Nov. 8, 1996. About 70 other infections around the West were also connected to Odwalla products.
Some of these infections resulted in serious hemolytic uremic syndrome cases in youngsters, a condition that can result in permanent kidney damage, although long-term consequences cannot be predicted with certainty, say pediatricians.
Shortly after the outbreak, Odwalla began to pasteurize its apple juice.
In June of 1996, an Army veterinarian, Capt. Lorraine L. Linn, toured the Dinuba plant and wrote, "After careful review of the product, production methods and our microbial test results, we have decided that control measures and established criteria are not available to ensure maximum reduction of the risk involved with food-borne disease."
In testing at the United States Army Veterinary Command at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, microbiologists found the Odwalla sample had a range of 310,000 to 400,000 "colony-forming units" of bacteria. Linn judged that to be high. A CFU is the number of microorganisms per milliliter. The Army laboratory's count of up to 400,000 in the Odwalla sample may or may not be significant, according to Linda Harris of UC Davis, whom Linn contacted prior to writing her report, and three other food microbiologists.
Harris; Dean Cliver, also of Davis; Mike Doyle of the University of Georgia; and Jim Waddell, of the Food Safety Section of the California Department of Health Services in Sacramento, all said they would need to know a history of such counts in a product. And, they said, many bugs are simply not harmful to humans.