We have a right to expect that the food we buy at grocery stores and restaurants is healthy and safe to eat. But when food suppliers and restaurant staff fail to follow proper safety practices in handling and preparing food, they may cause an outbreak of foodborne illness and leave people seriously ill or worse.
This spring, an outbreak of toxin-producing E. coli bacteria on romaine lettuce has killed five people and sickened nearly 200 nationwide, including people in North Carolina, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreak has been traced to the Yuma, Arizona farming region. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said the last shipments of romaine lettuce from the region were harvested in mid-April, and it is now unlikely that any romaine lettuce from the Yuma region is still available in groceries or restaurants, given its 21-day shelf life.
While it is impossible for the average consumer to test every piece of produce they buy for E. coli, a little knowledge can go a long way toward protecting you from foodborne illness and making sure that you are properly treated if you are infected.
Understanding Harmful E. coli
E. coli is a name you may have heard in connection with serious foodborne illness and death. Most strains of E. coli are harmless. But some strains can make you seriously ill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the strain of E. coli involved in the recent outbreak is Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). Considered the most harmful of E. coli bacteria, STEC produces harmful toxins that, upon entering the bloodstream, can cause humans to develop intestinal infections and symptoms such as:
- Urinary tract infections
- Respiratory illness
- Bloodstream infections
- Kidney damage
- Other symptoms and illnesses
If you are experiencing symptoms of E. coli infection, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. A doctor can diagnose your foodborne illness and provide you with proper treatment to manage the symptoms. Left untreated, E. coli poisoning can cause kidney failure and even death.
Understanding the Most Recent Outbreak
Food poisoning occurs when restaurants and production companies fail to pay adequate attention to safe food handling. Bacteria and viruses may be transmitted by unsanitary kitchens, by restaurant workers who do not wash their hands after using the bathroom and by improper food preparation. The symptoms of food poisoning vary in severity depending on the type of contamination. Many infections produce mild foodborne illnesses. But some people who have foodborne illnesses require hospitalization and have longer-term health issues.
It can be easy to forget how integrated the American agricultural market is across state lines. This recent E. coli outbreak had a truly national reach, with 197 from California to Massachusetts and in between falling ill. One person in North Carolina was among the infected.
While the outbreak appears to be over, it is a sobering thought that when an outbreak strikes one part of the country, you could be at risk even if you live hundreds of miles away.
Preventing illness in future outbreaks
Sooner or later, there will be another outbreak, and if it’s not STEC next time, it could be another harmful bacteria. You can’t just stop buying produce altogether. There are some steps you can take to reduce your chances of illness.
Here are some helpful prevention tips from the CDC:
- Know your risks. Pregnant women, older adults, children, and those with compromised immune systems are at higher risk of E. coli infections. These people should be especially vigilant.
- Practice good hygiene. Washing your hands regularly can reduce your risk of being infected.
- Practice good food safety. Keep your kitchen clean, and separate raw, unwashed food from food that is ready to eat.
- Wash your produce. Fresh produce should be run under the faucet, and fruits and vegetables with hard surfaces should be scrubbed to remove dirt.
- Cook meat to a safe temperature. Cooking kills many harmful bacteria that can be present in raw or undercooked meat. You can never really know how done meat is without using a meat thermometer.
- Avoid high-risk foods such as raw milk and unpasteurized dairy and juice products. The pasteurization process is designed to kill bacteria and make these foods safer.
- Try to avoid swallowing water while swimming. Harmful bacteria can lurk in lakes, ponds, rivers, and even man-made swimming pools.
Even with the best practices, there is still a chance that you may become infected, especially if you are eat at a restaurant that is lax about its kitchen sanitation and food preparation practices. If you experience food poisoning after eating at a restaurant or eating contaminated produce, you may have a right to take legal action to seek compensation for your medical bills and other expenses related to the foodborne illness.
Contact a North Carolina Food Poisoning Lawyer
Victims of food poisoning can sue food companies and restaurants that act negligently in the handling of food, causing people to become ill. Negligence in this context includes any type of behavior in which a party fails to take steps that could reasonably be expected to ensure the safety of consumers. For example, a grocery store that knowingly failed to take potentially infected lettuce off the shelves, or a restaurant that failed to wash its produce for salads may be held liable for causing customers to develop E. coli poisoning.
If the E. coli outbreak has affected you or someone you love in North Carolina, you should discuss the situation with a knowledgeable attorney to get an understanding of your options. You may be entitled to seek compensation to help cover your medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, and more. If you or a loved one has been a victim of foodborne illness caused by tainted food, the North Carolina personal injury lawyers of Hardison & Cochran can help you fight back against the negligent food company that caused you to become ill.
For more information on how we can help, contact us now.