Woman hospitalized with E. coli sues Emmpak


U.S. says firm may have knowingly sent 'adulterated' beef

A Wisconsin woman hospitalized with an E. coli infection after eating tainted beef has sued Milwaukee-based Emmpak Foods, the first lawsuit in the aftermath of an E. coli outbreak that sickened 57 people in seven states in August and September.

Attorneys for Susan Woodson of Neenah and her husband, Gerald, filed the lawsuit in Milwaukee County Circuit Court late Thursday accusing Emmpak of negligence and failing to adequately warn consumers about the dangers of its products.

The lawsuit, which seeks an unspecified amount in damages, says Susan Woodson was hospitalized for several days with an E. coli O157:H7 infection after consuming meat produced at Emmpak's Peck Meat Packing plant.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service said Thursday that Emmpak's ground beef recall was expanded from 416,000 to 2.8 million pounds Oct. 2 and its plant has been idled indefinitely because the agency had reason to believe Emmpak knowingly shipped "adulterated," or potentially contaminated, beef.

Emmpak spokesman Mark Klein would neither confirm nor deny the allegation, saying only, "I had not heard that." He also would not comment on the suit.

In announcing the plant closing Oct. 3, Emmpak President Justin Segel said the move was intended to give the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors an opportunity to thoroughly review the company's meat-handling procedures.

In fact, much of that review had already occurred, Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, confirmed Thursday.

By Oct. 3, Emmpak had already received its "notice of intended enforcement," the federal inspection service document outlining deficiencies at the plant and the steps the company would have to take in order to reopen, Cohen said.

Emmpak responded with a proposed plan of action on Wednesday of this week, and the inspection service is evaluating that response to determine if it is adequate, Cohen said.

He said food safety inspectors are continuing their review of the meatpacking plant and three other Emmpak plants.

Neither the company nor the federal agency would elaborate on the deficiencies outlined or provide copies of the enforcement document or Emmpak's response.

The Journal Sentinel requested copies of both documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act on Thursday.

Federal inspectors began scrutinizing Emmpak's meatpacking operation after an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 sickened 57 people in seven states, including 35 in Wisconsin in August and September.

A second outbreak around the same time sickened 19 people in Wisconsin and nine in three other states. Although ground beef is suspected in that outbreak, health officials have been unable to determine the exact source because none of those infected still had any of the meat, said state epidemiologist Jeff Davis.

E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially deadly bacterium that causes flu-like symptoms and dehydration. In small children and people with compromised immune systems, it can cause potentially fatal kidney failure and damage other organs.

Since Sept. 27, Emmpak has recalled 3.4 million pounds of potentially contaminated ground beef produced at the Menomonee Valley plant between Aug. 20 to 24 and on Sept. 23.

The latest recall - of 568,000 pounds announced late Wednesday - involves meat produced Sept. 23 and is unrelated to the earlier recalls, said Emmpak spokesman Klein.

In that case, he said, a "customer of a customer who reprocesses the ground beef found a positive (E. coli) sample as part of their regular monitoring."

Klein refused to say whether one of the customers was a retail grocery store or what state the customer was in, calling the questions "irrelevant."

Emmpak was purchased last year by Excel Corp., the nation's third-largest meatpacking company. Excel, based in Wichita, Kan., is a subsidiary of Minneapolis-based Cargill, one of the largest food producers in the world.

Beef processed at an Excel plant in Colorado is suspected of causing the local E. coli outbreak that hit 60 customers of Sizzler restaurants and killed a 3-year-old girl in 2000.