Listeria Search Expands Further the New Facilities are not in the Philadelphia Area, Officials Said. A Lawsuit Targets Wampler - The Philadelphia Enquirer - November 5, 2002

By: Aparna Surendran
The Philadelphia Enquirer
November 5, 2002

Investigators searching for sources of a deadly listeria outbreak are inspecting two more meat-processing plants, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture said yesterday.

Bacteria matching the listeria strain blamed for at least seven deaths and 50 illnesses has already been found in two local meat plants - Wampler Foods in Montgomery County and J.L. Foods in Camden.

Officials declined to identify the other two plants under investigation, but neither is in the Philadelphia area, said Steven Cohen of the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Also yesterday, a lawsuit seeking a class action was filed against Wampler, of Franconia Township, by a retired doctor who said he was sickened by listeria bacteria after eating turkey deli meat processed at the Montgomery County plant.

The Wampler plant recalled 27.4 million pounds of poultry products last month, the largest meat recall in U.S. history. The plant has been closed since Oct. 12. J.L. Foods announced a recall of 200,000 pounds of poultry products on Saturday.

Authorities are investigating whether "a common source product," such as the same batch of raw turkey meat or tainted packaging materials, was used at both plants, said Tom Skinner, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

He said that though technically possible, it was "extremely unlikely" that the bacteria from the two plants came from separate sources, because they had the same basic genetic makeup.

In his lawsuit, Frank Niemtzow, 98, of Longboat Key, Fla., says he was hospitalized for two months with listeriosis after eating the turkey meat while visiting family in Philadelphia in August.

The lawsuit, filed in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas on behalf of Niemtzow and any others who may have died or been made ill by Wampler products, seeks unspecified monetary damages.

Niemtzow lived alone in Florida before falling ill but now needs around-the-clock nursing care, his son, Stuart Niemtzow, said at a news conference yesterday in Philadelphia. Frank Niemtzow practiced family medicine for 60 years in Freehold, N.J., his son said, and counted among his patients Bruce Springsteen, whom he delivered.

He now lives in Philadelphia and will not return to Florida anytime soon, his son said.

"My father feels he was wronged here," Stuart Niemtzow said.

David Van Hoose, chief executive officer of Wampler, said that the company would not comment on pending litigation but that, based on the J.L. Foods recall, the strain of listeria that caused the outbreak might not have originated at the Wampler plant.

"We understand that inspectors recently found listeria that is similar to the outbreak strain in product processed by another company, suggesting that the outbreak may have other sources," Van Hoose said in a statement. "By contrast, no Wampler products have tested positive for the strain of listeria linked to the outbreak."

The "outbreak strain" of the bacteria was identified in drainage areas at the Wampler plant.

At J.L. Foods, the same strain of bacteria was found in a sample of turkey breast. The plant, which closed Saturday, is undergoing environmental testing, Cohen said. The plant will not be permitted to reopen until those tests are completed and a plan for improved food safety is approved by the USDA, Cohen said.

Kenneth Martin, general manager for J.L. Foods, said the plant might reopen in one to three weeks. But he sounded weary from the weekend's events.

"We've spent the last 15 years developing products," Martin said. "No matter what, all the business will have to be restructured and rebuilt."

Martin said there was no connection between J.L. Foods and Wampler. The Franconia plant was cited as the likely source of the outbreak by a spokesman for the CDC last month, before the discovery of the same strain at J.L. Foods.

Chicago lawyer Kenneth B. Moll, who represents Frank Niemtzow, said he believed further scientific tests would prove that his client was made ill by eating Wampler's food rather than turkey from J.L. Foods.

In recent months, listeria has been blamed for 27 deaths and 130 illnesses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and six other states.

There are six bacterial species of listeria. One, Listeria monocytogenes, causes human illness.

There are at least 13 strains of L. monocytogenes. Seven of the deaths and at least 50 of the illnesses have been linked to the so-called outbreak strain.