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E. Coli Outbreaks and Recalls Continue to Raise Concerns Over Food Safety

Sep 4, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

An E. coli -related death in Alabama, along with a recall of E. coli-tainted potato salad in 31 other states, has the deadly food-borne bacteria back in the news today.   E. coli O157:H7, a bacteria that grows in the intestines of animals like cows, was once associated mainly with undercooked meat.  But in recent years, E. coli contamination of fresh produce and other foods has become all too common.

E. coli is a common bacteria found in the intestines of most mammals, including humans.  However, the E. coli O157:H7 strain is a deadly form of the bacteria that can cause bloody diarrhea and dehydration.  Young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to E. coli O157:H7.   In some rare instances, the disease can progress to the point of kidney failure and death.  While most people who suffer from E. coli poisoning recover within 7 to 10 days, extreme cases can require blood transfusions and dialysis treatments.

Meat products are likely to become contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 during the slaughtering process.  Cooking meats to an internal temperature of 160-degrees will kill E. coli bacteria.  Produce, however, is another matter.  Fruits and vegetables can become contaminated in the fields if they come into contact with E. coli contaminated water or soil.   Or they may be contaminated during processing if workers do not employ proper hand washing practices.  Because E. coli cannot be easily washed away, vegetables that are typically eaten raw, like lettuce, can lead to outbreaks of the disease.

In fact, lettuce has been blamed for an outbreak of E. coli in Alabama that occurred earlier this summer that recently claimed the life of a woman there.  Health officials reported the death of the 48-year-old woman late last week.   The woman, whose name has not been identified, was one of 18 people who were diagnosed with E. coli poisoning after eating at Little Rosie’s Taqueria in Huntsville.   All of the victims had eaten at the popular restaurant between June 27 and June 30.    Health officials were able to trace the source of the illnesses to E. coli-contaminated shredded lettuce served at the restaurant.

The woman died after spending weeks in a Huntsville hospital undergoing dialysis.  Two others sickened by E. coli-tainted lettuce also had to undergo weeks of dialysis in hospital intensive care units.  One of those, a 69-year-old woman is still in the hospital.  While she is recovering, news reports have said that she will likely need extensive physical therapy after spending 2-months bedridden in the hospital.

So far, no reports of illness have been linked to the E. coli-laced potato salads recalled by Kroger Co. late last week.  The grocery chain recalled its house brands of mustard and Southern-style potato salad after tests by the Ohio Department of Agriculture found traces of E. coli bacteria.   The potato salad was sold in 31 states in more than 2,000 grocery stores owned by Kroger.  Those grocery stores include Kroger’s, Fry’s Marketplace, Smith’s Marketplace, Dillons, King Soopers, Smith’s and Food 4 Less.   The potato salad was sold in one-pound and three-pound containers, and has a “Best If Used By Date” of September 5.  Under no circumstances should the potato salad be used.  It can be returned to the store of purchase for a full refund.   

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 73,000 cases of  E. coli occur annually in the United States. Every year, 2,100 Americans are hospitalized, and 61 people die as a direct result of E. coli infections and its complications. A recent study estimated the annual cost of E. coli O157:H7 illnesses to be $405 million (in 2003 dollars). Those costs that contributed to this estimate included $370 million for premature deaths, $30 million for medical care, and $5 million for lost productivity


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