Remember the great E. coli scare that plagued the meat industry around the turn of the century? The Genesis was the infamous Jack in the Box case of 1993 when “the Washington Department of Health (WDOH) was notified that a cluster of children suffering hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) secondary to E. coli infection was being treated in a Seattle-area hospital and that there had been an increase in emergency room visits from patients with bloody diarrhea.
“In response to the apparent outbreak, WDOH began interviewing case-patients for an epidemiologic investigation and learned that nearly all patients had consumed hamburgers purchased from Jack in the Box restaurants in the days before becoming ill.”
Lawsuits ensued. Lawyers now at Marler Clark handled most of them, resulting in individual and class-action settlements totaling more than $50 million. Tragically, the most severely injured victims were children, including four who died. Marler Clark’s Bill Marler represented a nine-year-old Seattle girl who recovered after suffering kidney failure and other complications, including being in a coma for 42 days. She won a $15.6 million settlement from the company.
Jack in the Box lost an estimated $160 million over the course of the incident.
Marler famously demanded that the meat industry clean up its act and “put me out of business.” After much caterwauling, that’s exactly what meat packers and processors did. Soon, whenever another food industry asked what they should do to prevent him from knocking on their door, he was telling them to ask the meat industry. “They did it right,” he said.
Now, for an update
Just a few days ago, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reported Campylobacter and Salmonella were the two leading causes of reported foodborne illnesses last year. Campylobacter sickened 8,547 and Salmonella was a close second with 8,172 reported illnesses. Other leading causes of reported illnesses were Shigella (2,913), Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (1,845), Cryptosporidium (1,816), Yersina (302), Vibrio (252) and Listeria (127).
During the year, there were 24,029 reported foodborne infections, with 5,512 resulting in hospitalization and 98 cases resulting in death.
The leading bad guy in the food business? It wasn’t meat and poultry. It was fruit and produce.
In fact, Food Safety News has just reported that “the Public Health Agency of Canada has confirmed 27 cases of E. coli O121 infections across five Canadian provinces since November 2016 that have been linked to flour produced by Ardent Mills Canada. A 28th victim was a visitor to the country.”
In recent years, E. coli O121 has been responsible for outbreaks associated with flour, frozen foods and raw clover sprouts.
Only a few days earlier the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) alerted consumers that the brownie mix dessert included in breaded chicken nugget meals produced by Conagra might be contaminated with Salmonella. More than 110,000 lb. of your children’s favorite frozen meals were recalled.
Although fresh and processed meats will never be issued an ‘all clear’ when it comes to transmitting food-borne illnesses - the nature of the beast will always prevent that perfect health point - they are constantly approaching that distant but unreachable horizon.
If the rest of the food industry wants to play catch up, the words of Bill Marler, the most successful lawyer in the business, should be engraved on a very large plaque and placed in a notable position on every CEO’s desk.
To paraphrase, “Ask the meat industry how to do it. They did it right.”
Please note that if it’s not engraved on that plaque, there is a good chance this might be engraved on the corporate tombstone: “I didn’t ask.”