Plantiffs’ Lawyer, Experts Inspect Bil Mar Meat Plant. Death Toll From Tainted Products Rises to 14 People - Times Herald - March 3, 1999

The Associated Press
Times Herald
March 3, 1999

Borculo - The west Michigan meat processing facility linked to a deadly bacterial outbreak opened its doors for an outside inspection led by a lawyer for people allegedly sickened by the products.

Tuesday's tour of the Bil Mar Foods plant came as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the number of deaths linked to contaminated hot dogs and deli meats made at the Ottawa County plant has increased to 14.

All the deaths, including one in Macomb County, occurred between early August and Jan. 17.

The center also said the meat, tainted by a rare but deadly strain of listeria bacteria, has been blamed for six miscarriages and 97 illnesses in 22 states during that same time frame.

Chicago attorney Kenneth B. Moll - accompanied by a food microbiologist, a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture official, a state health department official and a videographer - spent nearly 12 hours Tuesday examining the Bil Mar plant for clues to the outbreak.

Mr. Moll's firm has filed at least two lawsuits against Bil Mar's parent company, Sara Lee Corp. He said he was gathering information for a potential class action lawsuit involving people sickened by the outbreak or the families of those killed by it.

"We're basically looking at all of our theories as to why there was contamination," he said. “The big issue here is cross contamination."

Mr. Moll speculated that fans might have spread the listeria bacteria to different rooms with a common ceiling, including a storage room for spoiled or other inedible food scraps.

Federal investigators have focused on construction done last summer on a cooling unit, and theorized that dust and debris might have spread the bacteria.

Sara Lee spokesman Jeffrey Smith declined to comment on Mr. Moll's statements. "In know there's no shortage of theories," he said, adding that the company's own investigation is continuing.

On Dec. 22, Bil Mar began recalling 15 million pounds of hot dogs and cold cuts produced at the Borculo plant after listeria bacteria was found in both opened and unopened packages.

Bil Mar announced plans three weeks ago to shift work to other plants while it reconfigures areas that make retail franks, sliced lunch meats and bulk meats.