E. coli lawsuit questions and answers about chronic food poisoning outbreaks linked to alfalfa sprouts were fielded this week by a roundtable of lawyers in the Minneapolis offices of PritzkerHageman Attorneys, a national firm that practices extensively in the area of foodborne illness litigation.
The discussion, conducted by Food Poisoning Bulletin, centered on two multi-state, sprout-related outbreaks of Salmonella and E. coli in 2016. The latest of the outbreaks was uncovered by the Minnesota Department of Health and investigated by FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). On March 2, the CDC reported that seven Minnesotans and two residents of Wisconsin were infected by the same strain of E. coli O157, traced to alfalfa sprouts grown at Jack & the Green Sprouts of River Falls, Wisconsin. Two of the victims were hospitalized and the company recalled its alfalfa and alfalfa onion sprouts.
E. coli lawyers Fred Pritzker, Brendan Flaherty and Ryan Osterholm discussed why sprouts are so dangerous and why sprout growers and retailers should be held accountable for selling raw food laced with pathogens.
Q: In the past two decades, the CDC has documented 30 multi-state outbreaks of food poisoning linked to contaminated raw sprouts. What makes sprouts so dangerous?
Fred: The great paradox about sprouts is that consumers perceive them as nutritious and wholesome while food scientists see them as vectors for harmful bacteria. It’s often the case that the seeds are contaminated with E. coli or Salmonella at levels so low that the germs are hard to detect. When placed in warm, humid growing conditions, the pathogens greatly multiply into infectious doses but can’t be seen or smelled. Finally, sprouts are promoted as a raw health food; so there’s no cooking step to kill the microscopic bugs.
Q: Can I sue a restaurant for E. coli in alfalfa sprouts?
Brendan: Yes. We’ve represented clients in nearly every major outbreak of food poisoning over the past 15 years. We see how terribly sick some people become and how food poisoning ruins lives. If your illness is part of an identified sprout outbreak, the chain of accountability doesn’t stop at the sprout grower. You can also sue the restaurant where you consumed the sprouts, or the grocery store, food co-op, deli, food truck, whatever. Retailers bear the important responsibility to look upstream into the food supply chain to make sure they’re buying wholesome goods .
Q: If raw sprouts are so dangerous, why are they perceived as good for you?
Ryan: Alfalfa sprouts and other sprouts cause so many food poisoning outbreaks, we’ve grown accustomed to calling them “sproutbreaks.’’ But in the mainstream, obviously, we need greater public awareness. The lawyers in our firm have called for a mandatory consumer warning any place where raw sprouts are sold. Put up a sign. Attach a warning label. Highlight the danger on menus. Some places already are doing it and there’s certainly a number of restaurants and other retailers who just won’t serve raw sprouts because of the risks. Food poisoning carried by contaminated sprouts is especially dangerous for pregnant women, small children, older adults and others, including cancer patients, whose immune systems are compromised or underdeveloped. Sprouts can’t be made sufficiently safe, so they must carry a warning.
Q: On what legal foundation can you file an alflalfa sprout E. coli lawsuit?
Fred: On behalf of our clients, we base our legal claims on the fact that contaminated sprouts are defective products. If we prove they are defective, we have done our job. In some cases where we have pushed for punitive damages, we find that companies sell food knowing that it is defective. Punitive damages are above and beyond. They are meant to punish wrongdoers for being reckless, careless and law-breaking when it comes to making or selling food. The important thing for our clients is the role their lawsuit plays in making food safer for other people. When you are hospitalized or a loved one is killed from a toxic bacterial infection from eating food, you want justice for your family and the multi-million dollar verdicts or settlements that sometimes result send an undeniable message to the food and restaurant industry to clean up their acts.