More Deaths Reported in Bil Mar Meat Probe, A Lawsuit Would Force Bil Mar To Pay For Treatment Of Those Sickened By Tainted Meat - The Grand Rapids Press - January 8, 1999

By: Karla D. Shores
The Grand Rapids Press
January 8, 1999

A Chicago attorney has filed a class-action lawsuit to get Bil Mar Foods to pay for medical testing and treatment of consumers who may have been sickened by eating contaminated meat that has now been linked to eight deaths and at least 50 illnesses.

The death toll rose Thursday after federal health officials reported four more deaths linked to bacteria-contaminated meat processed at Bil Mar, a division of Sara Lee Corp. and based in Ottawa County's Borculo. Health officials fear more could follow.

The Centers for Disease Control reported Thursday it has now linked the deaths of five adults and three spontaneous miscarriages to listeria found in cold cuts and hot dogs made by the meat processor. A spokeswoman for the CDC said that one in four people who contract listeriosis, the illness caused by the contamination, die from the disease - making it among the most deadly types of food poisoning.

The outbreak has sickened 50 people in 11 states since August, according to the CDC.

Chicago attorney Kenneth Moll said the actual number of illnesses probaly is higher since the incubation period for listeriosis is up to five weeks, and the initial story didn't receive much attention from the national media.

CDC officials Thursday night said they expected more cases might surface.

"Because of that incubation period, we do anticipate we will have more cases, and we do think we may have more deaths," said CDC spokeswoman K.D. Hoskins.

Moll wants Sara Lee to set up a "medical monitoring fund" to pay for testing and treatment of people who fear they have contracted the illness. The lawsuit, filed in Illinois' Cook County, also seeks compensatory damages for the families of those who have died and for those who have been injured.

"It's the worst form of food poisoning out there," Moll said. “Twenty-five percent of the people who contract listeriosis die from it. Those numbers are alarming." After announcing the recall, Bil Mar voluntarily shut down production, halted shipments and set up a toll-free line to handle customer concerns.

Jeffrey Smith, a spokesman for Bil Mar's parent company, Sara Lee in Chicago, said Bil Mar continues to work closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and "outside experts to remove any possibility of listeria on the premises."

Cleaning and testing in the plant continues.

Moll said he hopes Bil Mar will set up a fund as soon as possible.

Smith said it was Sara Lee's policy not to comment on matters under litigation.

Bil Mar CEO George Chivari did not return calls. Bil Mar is referring calls to Sara Lee.

On Dec. 30, the CDC confirmed Bil Mar likely was responsible for an outbreak that at that point was linked to 36 illnesses and four deaths.

That action came eight days after Bil Mar recalled specific production lots of hot dogs and other packaged meat. Sara Lee said it expects to take a $50 million to $70 million charge against second quarter earnings to cover costs of the recall.

The recall involves the brand names of Ball Park, Bil Mar, Bryan Bunsize and Bryan 3-LB Club Pack, Grillmaster, Hygrade, Mr. Turkey, and Sara Lee Home Roast brands. The affected products bear the numbers EST P261 and EST 6911.

News of the additional deaths is expected to add to Bil Mar's problems, and not just with consumers.

Meijer Inc. was unhappy with how Bil Mar handled the recall. Spokesman John Zimmerman said press releases went to the media 1 ½ hours before they went to the grocers.

"With most manufacturers we hear about it ahead of time. That's how it should be." Zimmerman said, so that retailers can move swiftly to pull the products."

Even before the newest reports, the Family Fare grocery store was unsure it would take Bil Mar products back.

"Until we're sure the customer is ready for it, we're not sure we're really ready for it," said Wes Sterenberg, senior director of sales and merchandising.

Listeria has an incubation period of three to five weeks. It generally causes flu-like symptoms but can kill in some cases. Those most at risk are pregnant women, the elderly and people with weak immune systems.

But the outbreak should be a cause for concern to all, said Dr. Richard Tooker, chief medical officer with the Kalamazoo County Human Services Department.

"We've doubled the fatality rate (for listeria-related deaths) in a short time," he said.

A Western Michigan University student was the only Michigan resident known to be hospitalized for a listeria-related illness.

"(The children's) mother told their pediatrician that the kids were sick," Tooker said. "She remembered hearing from the media about the hot dogs...She was aware her children ate some of those products. I agreed that her suspicions may be well-founded."