Q & As on Foodborne Illness
Elliot Olsen recently joined Siegel Brill and has been representing victims of serious and often life-threatening foodborne illness for nearly 20 years. He takes cases from all across the country and has been involved in cases in more than 25 states. The majority of his clients have had to be hospitalized as a result of their illness.
Below are some questions that Elliot frequently answers about his practice.
What do you like about this type of personal injury law?
I personally enjoy the science of it. The process of how epidemiologists and microbiologists as well as CDC personnel apply techniques of epidemiology and microbiology to track the source of a foodborne illness is very interesting. These kinds of personal injury cases are truly “law mixed with science.”
I am also very interested to learn about and understand my clientele and the severity of their medical issues. As a result of their foodborne illnesses, some of my clients have required kidney dialysis and are at high risk for the need for a kidney transplant. Some of them have other severe injuries, such as damage to their colon that requires surgery. Many people have resulting issues with their lungs. I end up seeing some very serious injuries. It can be very satisfying to get a judgment for a client with a serious injury to help them with their medical bills and help them to fully recover.
What types of clients use your services?
- Typically, I represent a single person or perhaps two people that require hospitalization from a larger outbreak.
- I have also often represented a substantially larger group of people, up to 30 or so, who all sought medical treatment but were hospitalized for only a short time, or were not hospitalized but nonetheless required medical management.
- Additionally, I have represented the families of people who have died from foodborne illness. There is a large percentage of wrongful death cases involved in foodborne illness.
What are the most common types of foodborne illness that you get involved in?
- E. coli
CLICK BELOW to read more about Listeria cases
What populations are most adversely affected by foodborne illness?
People who are immunocompromised are most affected, such as the elderly, children, and pregnant women. Listeria has been known to cause miscarriages in pregnant women. Other people who might be more seriously affected are those who are immunocompromised because they are on certain medications such as steroids for autoimmune disorders.
What types of symptoms do people experience from a foodborne illness?
Classic symptoms of a foodborne illness can include: fever, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. At times the diarrhea can be tinged with blood, especially with an E. coli illness. Symptoms typically progress over a period of days and tend to be highly painful and debilitating as opposed to a case of simple flu.
How long does it take for people to exhibit symptoms?
People generally think if they are sick on a Saturday morning that it must be from what they ate Friday night. But that is usually not correct, as most foodborne illnesses have incubation periods ranging from two or three days to 10 or 12 days.
Listeria is the big exception in that its typical incubation period is 21 days and can be as long as 70 days. Listeria is the most deadly foodborne illness with an 80% hospitalization rate and a 20% death rate. It is very hard to track because of the long incubation period. You can imagine how hard it is for people to remember what they ate, when they ate it, and where they ate it three weeks previous.
How are foodborne illnesses tracked to the source?
The law in all 50 states requires a healthcare provider to report known cases of Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and certain other pathogens to the local or the state health department. These are called mandatory reportable illnesses.
The process works like this: The state has a base average number of E. coli cases reported to them every month. When a local or state health department has a deviation from the average, it starts contacting the people who have a positive stool sample for an interview. They ask them where they ate, did they have ground beef, what restaurant, etc. When they find multiple people who say that they bought beef or other product all from one source in a certain timeframe, that really gets the investigation moving. The health department will also do further genetic fingerprinting of the bacteria to help narrow the potential sources of the illnesses.
How does a manufacturer recall a food and what is required?
Despite what most people may think, the USDA does not have the power to order a food recall. What they can do is threaten the manufacturer by saying they will withhold the USDA seal of approval on its products. Usually what happens in a beef outbreak is that the USDA works with the producer to coordinate a recall. The producers with a conscience will be more likely to do a recall. A recall legally does not affect the potential civil liability of the food producer. It is a surefire way to way to stop an outbreak, but producers are often reluctant to do it because it usually negatively impacts the business.