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Wendy's E. Coli Outbreak Sparks Lawsuits

May 8, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Two women who were hospitalized for several weeks due to E. coli infections that were linked to tainted lettuce in a Wendy’s meal are suing the popular fast food chain.  Dozens of people attending an education conference in June 2006 fell ill after eating food from Wendy's.  The women say they ate the contaminated food at a Wendy's restaurant in North Ogden, Utah and the lawsuits were filed this week against Wendy's International in Salt Lake City federal court.  Lesiel Calvert and her husband, who live in Weber County and Megan Richards and her husband, who live in Cache County, filed the lawsuits.  The lawsuits seek an unspecified amount of money.

Escherichia coli is a relatively common bacteria found in the human digestive tract is normally harmless; however, some strains, including those linked to food poisoning, are serious and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, and deadly septicemia.  In the United States, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness.  About 73,000 people are infected and 61 people die from it E. coli each year.  And, last year alone, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to E. coli outbreaks.

In the last two years, a variety of food pathogens have killed several people, sickened more than 1,300 others, and touched nearly every state in the country as well as Canada.  The problem is difficult to police because the food-surveillance system is outdated, under-funded, and overwhelmed by the emergence of mega-farms, -distribution centers, and -transporters.  Scientists have expressed concern that infections from antibiotic resistant E.coli bacteria are spreading into the greater population and several countries also now report cases of antibiotic-resistant E.coli.  Other researchers compare the E.coli threat to the worldwide problem of community-acquired MRSA—methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—an antibiotic-resistant staph developing resistance to the last drug of choice.

Canadian scientists are concerned infections from an antibiotic resistant E.coli are spreading beyond hospitals into the greater population and strongly urged global health officials to begin monitoring their spread.  Scientists have also looked at a strain of E. coli that produces extended-spectrum beta lactamases or ESBLs, enzymes that give the bacteria resistance to antibiotic drugs.  Health officials are particularly concerned about drug-resistant strains reported in worldwide where the infection was resistant to four key antibiotics.  In Britain, BBC News reported blood poisoning cases caused by E. coli more than doubled 1995 to 2005; a growing number were drug-resistant.  In a review of 54 deaths in Shropshire, England all patients were sickened with the resistant strain; the toxin directly contributed to 20% of the deaths.  The bacterium was also responsible for a severe outbreak of urinary tract infections between 2003 and 2004.  And K-State food expert T.G. Nagaraja reports that an even newer strain of E. coli has emerged that comes from healthy plants and animals, but hurts humans.  "Comes through beef, water, or vegetables.  The organism produces a toxin that can cause illness in humans," Nagaraja said.

Worse, emerging data confirms the negative health effects of E. coli can remain for months and years and have long-term, lasting effects and can appear months or years after the original illness.

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