Listeria-Case Lawyer Leads Bil Mar Tour - Free Press Consumer Affairs Writer - March 5, 1999

By: Alison Young
Free Press Consumer Affairs Writer
March 5, 1999

Borculo - A lawyer for more than a dozen people who claim they were sickened by listeria tainted meats led a team of hired health experts and former plant employees Tuesday on a fact-finding tour of the Bil Mar Foods plant.

Bil Mar was identified by federal health officials in December as the source of the outbreak that has killed 20 people nationwide.

Chicago lawyer Kenneth Moll and his team were looking for clues to the cause of the outbreak, which remains a mystery.

Moll in an interview with the Free press, offered a new theory: that fans installed near a storage room for spoiled or other unusable food scraps may have spread the deadly bacteria.

"It's called the inedible pit," Moll said. "Every time something falls on the ground, or there's something that's outdated, it goes to the inedible pit. Broken package - inedible pit."

Moll wonders whether the room was the breeding ground for the deadly strain of Listeria monocytogenes that ultimately contaminated hot dogs and lunch meats produced at the western Michigan plant. According to Moll, several fans were installed in a nearby area around May and it's possible the bacteria could have been spread by them.

Federal health officials have focused their investigation on construction done last summer on a cooling unit in the plant. Their theory is that dust and debris may have spread the bacteria.

"We're basically looking at all of our theories as to why there was contamination," Moll explained, as he gathered his team at a café in Borculo, a few miles from the plant. "The big issue here is cross-contamination."

So far, nobody knows how hot dogs and lunch meat produced at the plant became contaminated with the virulent and rare strain of Listeria monocytogenes, known as serotype 4b.

"I know there's no shortage of theories," said Jeffrey Smith, spokesman for Sara Lee Corp., which owns Bil Mar. He said the company's own investigation is continuing and he could not comment on Moll's theory.

In Michigan, there have been nine confirmed cases linked to the plant, including the death of a Macomb County woman.

Eating food contaminated with the bacteria can cause listeriosis, an illness that healthy people usually can fight off. But young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are at risk of serious illness and death. The bacteria can cause pregnant women to miscarry.

On Dec. 22, Bil Mar Foods recalled 35 million pounds of hot dogs and deli meats suspected of being contaminated.