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Sara Lee Taking Steps to Prevent New Outbreak Spends Millions in Listeria Lawsuits and Upgrading Plant - Chicago Sun-Times - July 30, 2001

By: Sandra Guy
Chicago Sun-Times
July 30, 2001

The Thanksgiving holiday of 1998 turned life upside down for the families of 15 people who died after they unwittingly ate tainted meat from a Sara Lee Corp. manufacturing plant a week earlier.

Roy Lederman, 66, a Southwest Side resident who had retired from CPC International in Bedford Park, started complaining of headaches shortly after he had eaten hot dogs, which his family later learned were made at Sara Lee's Bil Mar Foods plant in Borculo, Mich.

When Lederman awoke the next morning, he could no longer talk. Soon after, he slipped into a coma.

"We had to do the last rites," said Lederman's son, Craig.

Roy Lederman was fortunate to survive, though he can no longer play golf or participate in the community activities he once enjoyed.

Lederman's lawsuit against Sara Lee Corp. was one of the last two involving the listeria outbreak that were settled out of court late last week. Besides the deaths, the outbreak resulted in six miscarriages and seriously sickened 80 people.

Investigators and attorneys trace the plant's problems to the removal of a refrigeration unit over the Fourth of July weekend in 1998. The work was alleged to have contaminated production equipment.

Kenneth Moll, the Chicago attorney who represented the plaintiffs in lawsuits against Sara Lee, described the production area at that time as "like going into someone's basement."

Sara Lee has spent millions to upgrade the technology and production processes it uses at the plant, but consumer advocates argue that the progress is inadequate.

One of the new processes, called surface thermal processing, requires that meat packaged in bulk, rather than sliced, be heated after it has been packaged and sealed, said Sara Lee spokeswoman Julie Ketay.

"Any pathogens that may have gotten onto the meat surface during the process would be eliminated during the heating," she said.

The extra step is critical because consumers rarely cook ready-to- eat foods, or, in the case of hot dogs, do not cook them long enough to kill bacteria.

Nevertheless, Sara Lee earlier this month recalled 13,600 pounds of packaged lunch meats because of possible salmonella contamination.

A new rule being proposed by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would require large companies to test each ready-to-eat production line for listeria four times each month.

"There is no testing requirement today," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We would like to see significantly more testing, and a combination of industry testing followed by government testing."

A public comment period on the proposed testing rule has been extended until Sept. 10. The rulemaking process will take another six months to one year.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest has criticized the Agriculture Department for moving too slowly to deal with listeria contamination.

"It's critical that controls are implemented at the plant level, and that microbial testing is used to verify that the food safety controls are working," DeWaal said.

The department responds that it has 7,600 inspectors who verify that food safety regulations are followed in meat, poultry and egg processing plants nationwide.

Yet the agency is required to file only criminal, rather than civil, lawsuits against companies that violate the rules, making it harder to prove negligence and win a verdict. The government also must rely on companies to recall products on a voluntary basis.

Sara Lee pleaded guilty on June 22 to a misdemeanor federal charge of selling adulterated meat in connection with the listeria outbreak. As part of the settlement, the company paid a $200,000 fine--the maximum for a corporation. The company also will make a $3 million grant to Michigan State University for food safety research and pay $1.2 million to settle a civil lawsuit for selling Bil Mar meat to the U.S. Defense Department.

Families expressed disappointment with the outcome.

Moll, the plaintiffs' attorney, gave credit to Sara Lee for resolving the lawsuits quickly, especially after a Cook County judge refused the company's request to move the listeria case to the more business-friendly jurisdiction of Michigan.

Of the latest settlement, he said, "The families have been compensated. They are able to pay their medical bills, and they have some type of monetary relief for the injuries they sustained from the listeria poisoning."

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