Leaving the people who consume tainted food sick. Salmonella, e. coli and, listeria are among the pathogens that may contaminate food, leaving the people who consume tainted food sick-sometimes seriously–and suffering from a severe illness that may include long-term health consequences. A serious bout of acute infectious gastroenteritis, commonly known as food poisoning, may also leave a victim with significant medical expenses, lost wages, and other problems. In some cases, patients have died as a result of serious food poisoning.
Food poisoning causes about 48 million people to get sick, 128,000 hospitalizations, and up to 3,000 deaths each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Salmonella alone, one of the most common forms of food poisoning, accounts for medical costs and lost work time of about $1 billion.
Everything from tainted lettuce, contaminated meat and even defective children’s snack foods has been implicated in large-scale food poisoning outbreaks.
Our firm is investigating potential lawsuits on behalf of patients who have suffered food poisoning injuries and losses as a result of consuming contaminate food.
Company Officials may be Liable for Food Contamination, Illnesses, and Death Regardless of Individual Involvement
A federal district court and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals are indicating that so-called “responsible” food corporation officers may be held accountable for introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. Such officers may be sentenced to jail, despite whether they were aware of the adulteration or not. The U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately have the final decision.
Quality Egg, LLC Salmonella Egg Outbreak
Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster were owners of Quality Egg, LLC in 2010 during a massive salmonella egg outbreak that led to 56,000 illnesses. In 2014, Quality Egg pled guilty to felony violations over bribing a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector and introducing misbranded eggs into interstate commerce with the intent to defraud and mislead and to a misdemeanor violation for introducing adulterated eggs into interstate commerce. Quality Egg paid $6.8 million and each DeCoster pled guilty to misdemeanor violations as responsible corporate officers under the Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic (FD&C) Act.
As part of the plea agreements, the DeCosters said they were unaware of the egg contamination at the time of shipment, but were in positions of the authority to perceive, avert, and rectify sales had they been aware. The violation carried the potential of one year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000. The sentencing court found no evidence to prove the DeCosters had concrete knowledge of the salmonella-infected eggs; however, business practices were deemed so shocking that the case was found to involve more than “a mere unaware corporate executive.” The DeCosters were each sentenced to three months in prison and were fined $100,000.
This case represents among the first examples of a corporate representative being sent to prison for unsafe food about which they were unaware. In July 2016, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the sentence; since, a petition for writ was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court over if a corporate official may be jailed for something about which they were ignorant. Should the court decide by December 2016 to consider and decline the DeCosters’ petition, the DeCosters must serve their time. This would send a strong message to responsible food company corporate officers to understand what they may not know about their firm’s actions.
Criminal liability is typically found when a party has intent to commit a wrongful act; however; under the FD&C Act, a corporate officer is held accountable for his/her failure to stop or correct conditions that led to the charges, not to the acts or omissions of others. Because of this, the court found some level of blame on the part of the corporate officer. And, based on the Act’s language, Congress intended these penalties to be available and not be a violation of due process. The trial court found that the Act “punishes neglect where the law requires care.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) indicated it will not wait for a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) referral of food contamination and will investigate and pursue referrals it deems threatening to the safety of food in commerce and maintains a stated commitment to hold companies criminally liable and to pursue responsible individuals for company actions. In 2015, the DOJ announced that the best way to ensure corporate accountability is to hold those responsible for corporations individually accountable for illegal conduct.
Peanut Corporation of America Peanut Butter-Salmonella Outbreak
Shirley Mae Almer, a lung cancer and brain tumor survivor, died at the age of 72 after eating salmonella-laced peanut butter manufactured by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA). Her son sent the owner of PCA, Stewart Parnell, a Mother’s Day card that read “I did not know where to send this to since my mother is no longer alive, so I am sending it to you, the person who is responsible for where she is today,” according to a September 2015 CNN report. He included a photograph of his mother and added, “I know what you did. You know what you did. And I am not walking away from this.” Almer told CNN, “People think salmonella is something that gives you a stomachache… It killed my mother.”
His mother died a few days prior to Christmas 2008 and the card was the only communication that Almer exchanged with Parnell. Parnell was convicted in 2014 in an historic food safety trial in which he faced life in prison, court documents indicated. His brother, Michael Parnell, a food broker was facing 17 years in prison; Mary Wilkerson, a plant manager, faced five years.
The lawsuit is the first time a food executive was convicted on federal felony charges associated with a food poisoning outbreak and a life sentence would have been the most serious sentence ever given. The Department of Justice (DOJ) charged the Parnell brothers with felonies; there were prior cases that were charged as misdemeanors, according to CNN. Meanwhile, the PCA peanut butter salmonella outbreak was the deadliest in history and was linked to nine deaths, including Mrs. Almer’s, and 714 illnesses over 46 states, according to federal and state disease detectives, CNN reported. PCA’s peanut processing plant was located in Blakely, Georgia.
In 2015, the Georgia jury convicted Parnell on 72 counts of conspiracy, fraud, and the introduction of adulterated foods into interstate commerce. Prosecutors called 45 witnesses and presented over 1,000 documents such as emails, financial records, and laboratory results to show that Parnell was aware of the contamination, hid it, and ordered PCA to continue shipping the salmonella-tainted peanut paste that is used in the manufacture of various products, according to CNN. In fact, the prosecution’s opening statement mimicked the same words Parnell wrote in an email in March 2007 to a plant manager concerning the tainted products: “Just ship it.”
Former PCA employees said that the Georgia plant was riddled with filth and federal inspectors discovered bird feces, dirt, grease, mold, rats, roaches, and a leaky roof. Water in a dry processing facility, such as what PCA was meant to be, significantly strengthens the likelihood for proliferating salmonella, according to food safety experts, CNN reported. Similar sickening conditions were seen at PCA’s Plainview, Texas plant. PCA filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy soon after it was shuttered. Two former plant managers arranged deals with the government in exchange for testimonies against Parnell.
Ultimately Steward Parnell was sentence to 28 years and, his brother, Michael, was sentenced to 20 years.
Bacteria and viruses may contaminate food in many ways. Poor sanitation or preparation is a key way. For example, food handlers who do not wash their hands after using the bathroom or who have infections themselves may cause food-borne illnesses. Manufacturers that do not maintain sanitary conditions at factories or packing plants may also be the cause of a food poisoning outbreak. Fruits and vegetables may become contaminated with bacteria while still in the fields as a result of exposure to animal waste. Improperly packaged food stored at the wrong temperature also promotes contamination.
Bacteria that Frequently Cause Food Poisoning
Bacteria are one of the most common causes of food borne illnesses, with each type offering its own host of adverse reactions and consequences. A wide range of tainted food may pose dangers, including peanut butter, meat, seafood and lettuce. Salmonella-which is transmitted by undercooked foods, such as eggs, poultry, dairy products, and seafood-is a common type of food poisoning that may cause moderate illness with nausea, vomiting, cramps/diarrhea, and headaches. Symptoms may return a few weeks later in the form of arthritis (joint pains). Salmonella may also become a life-threatening malady for people with impaired immune systems, such as those with kidney disease or HIV/AIDS, as well as those on chemotherapy for cancer.
E. coli O157:H7 is one of hundreds of strains of the bacterium Escherichia coli. Although most strains are harmless, this particular strain infects about 73,000 people and causes some 61 deaths in the United States each year. E. coli causes moderate to severe illness that begins as watery diarrhea, but progresses into bloody diarrhea. The more virulent E. coli O15:H7 may lead to kidney failure and death (about 3-5% of all cases). E. coli O15:H7 is transmitted by eating raw or undercooked hamburger, unpasteurized milk or juices, or contaminated well water.
Listeria is a bacterium found in soil, vegetation, raw milk, meat, poultry, cheeses (particularly the soft mold-ripened varieties), and salad vegetables. Listeriosis-the illnesses following listeria contamination-symptoms may vary from a mild flu-like illness to meningitis and septicemia. In pregnant women, listeriosis may cause a miscarriage or the birth of an infected child, and may lead to stillborn births or pregnancies that must be terminated. Other people at risk of a bad strain of this pathogen are those with compromised immune systems, the very young, and the very old.
Viruses that Cause Food Poisoning
Viruses are a major cause of food borne illnesses. In many instances, viruses contaminate food because food industry workers do not take precautions to ensure a sanitary environment. One such virus that may be passed in this manner is the Norwalk Virus, which causes a mild illness that induces nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, headache, and low-grade fever. Norovirus is the most common viral cause of adult food poisoning and is transmitted by water, shellfish, and vegetables contaminated by feces, as well as from person to person.
Hepatitis A is another virus that may be transmitted via food. Hepatitis A causes mild illness with sudden onset of fever, loss of appetite, and feelings of tiredness; these usually are followed by jaundice, which is a yellowing of the eyes and skin. In extreme cases, Hepatitis A may lead to the need for a liver transplant. Hepatitis A infection may also lead to death. Hepatitis A is transmitted from person to person by fecal contamination of food. In the past, infected waiters have passed Hepatitis A to restaurant patrons. In fact, the largest Hepatitis A outbreak in U.S. history occurred in 2005 at Chi-Chi’s Mexican Restaurant in Pennsylvania. More than 500 people contracted Hepatitis A-three of whom died-after eating at the restaurant. The outbreak was linked to tainted green onions.
Rotavirus is another virus that may be passed through contaminated food. Rotavirus causes moderate to severe illness, with vomiting, followed by watery diarrhea and fever. Rotavirus is the most common cause of food poisoning in infants and children and is transmitted from person to person by fecal contamination of food and shared play areas.
Food Poisoning May Have Long-Term Adverse Health Effects
A bout of food poisoning may cause serious long-term health problems; some victims will still be dealing with the consequences of food borne illnesses months and even years after onset of the initial illness.
E. coli victims sometimes require kidney transplants. They may also suffer from scarred intestines, which may cause lasting digestive difficulty. Even e. coli patients who supposedly recovered may eventually experience long-term health problems. About 10 percent of e. coli sufferers develop a serious complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, in which their kidneys and other organs fail.
Salmonella also has potential long-term health consequences. Some victims of salmonella poisoning-salmonellosis-will develop a disease called Reiter’s Syndrome, a difficult-to-treat form of reactive arthritis that causes severe joint pain, irritation of the eyes, and painful urination. Reiter’s Syndrome may plague its victims for months or years, and may also lead to chronic arthritis. Certain strains of shigella and yersinia bacteria, which are far more common abroad than in the U.S., may also trigger Reiter’s Syndrome.
About 1 in 1,000 sufferers of campylobacter, a diarrhea-causing infection spread by raw poultry, develop the far more serious Guillain-Barre syndrome within a month or so. Their body attacks their nerves, causing paralysis that usually requires intensive care and a ventilator to breathe. It is estimated that about one-third of the nation’s Guillain-Barre cases have been linked to previous instances of campylobacter, even if the diarrhea was very mild, and they typically suffer a more severe case than patients who never had food poisoning.
Study Finds Food Poisoning May Raise Risks for Crohn’s Disease
In October 2016, researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, in Canada, released new findings that reveal there may be long-term effects in people at risk for Crohn’s disease. When exposed to foodborne pathogens that lead to food poisoning, the growth of bacterium associated with debilitating inflammatory bowel disease may accelerate, according to CTVNews.ca. The study was published in PLOS Pathogens in early October 2016.
Researchers exposed mice “colonized” with what they described as an adherent-invasive Escherichia coli (AIEC)-a bacterium associated with Crohn’s disease-to the bacteria Salmonella Typhimurium or Citrobacter rodentium, which are both known to cause gastrointestinal disease. Senior study author and McMaster University professor, Dr. Brian Coombes, told CTVNews.ca that research found that the food-borne disease could “create an environment” in the gut in which Crohn’s-associated bacteria may grow. This, in turn, may lead to the onset of Crohn’s even years after the individual recovered from the food poisoning.
According to WebMD, Crohn’s disease is described as a chronic, inflammatory digestive tract disease associated with abdominal pain; diarrhea, which may be bloody; and loss of weight. Treatment involves lifestyle changes (exercise, healthy diet), over-the-counter anti-diarrhetic medications, and prescription anti-inflammatory drugs. “You set up this situation where the pathogen comes in via contaminated food or water, inflammation gets generated, and if that particular host has these Crohn’s-associated E.coli already in them (sic), then you’ve created an environment within the gut that allows them to thrive and grow to very, very high numbers,” Dr. Coombes said.
Dr. Coombes and his team at the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research are studying how microbes affect Crohn’s. He said it is what causes Crohn’s that remains unknown in the medical community. Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis affect one in every 150 Canadians, according to CTVNews.ca. “The pathway to get to Crohn’s is really an enigma,” he said. “People don’t really understand in a fulsome way, what generates Crohn’s disease. There are lots of risk factors that I would say are very well-known in the literature.”
Aida Fernandes, vice-president of Research and Patient Programs at Crohn’s and Colitis Canada, told CTVNews.ca that, “We know it’s not just a single factor. You don’t just inherit this disease… There is a genetic component, but understanding what your susceptibilities are, that somehow a combination of your genes, the environment in which you live, the microbes that live in your gut, all seem to kind of have an interaction and certainly at the end of the day play a role” that may lead to Crohn’s, which are known to be driven by microbes.
According to Dr. Coombes, “There’s trillions and trillions of bacteria in our gut-which ones are the real bad guys that are causing this kind of Crohn’s associated inflammation?” He noted, “We think these (adherent-invasive Escherichia coli) are one of the bad guys,” according to CTVNews.com. Dr. Coombes noted that he and his team were “inspired” by earlier human studies in which the tie between food poisoning and Crohn’s was reviewed. Of a prior study, he noted that, the “really striking finding is that if you’ve been exposed to food poisoning even once, your risk of developing Crohn’s disease within the next 15-year period is significantly higher than if you were not exposed to food-poisoning.”