Bill Marler—whose privately-funded study lead to O111 being recognized as an adulterant by USDA—applauds proactive approach by chain to protect customers

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is investigating an outbreak of E. coli O111 that has, to date, infected 13 people, including four who required hospitalization. This genetic strain of E. coli O1111 has not been seen in the United States previously.

While seven of the people with E. coli O111 infections reported eating at Applebee’s restaurants in Minnesota between June 24 and 27, there are multiple cases with no apparent connection to the restaurant or otherwise. Even though Applebee’s hasn’t been identified as the definitive source of the outbreak, the restaurant chain is cooperating fully with the investigation and has even voluntarily removed the Oriental Chicken Salad and some of its related ingredients from menus at all its Minnesota locations.

“There’s a grey period during every outbreak when you know the illness is out there, but you don’t know what’s causing it. Sometimes the source is immediately apparent; other times—like in this case—it’s not as clear. I applaud Applebee’s for taking proactive steps to try and minimize any further infections,” said Bill Marler, a prominent food safety attorney and advocate.

Marler has been on the front lines of food safety for more than two decades. Some of his first related clients stemmed from the outbreak E. coli O157: H7 traced back to the fast food chain Jack in the Box in the early 1990s. It was only after that outbreak that the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) began to recognize E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant that needed to be monitored in this nation’s meat supply.

“The monitoring of E. coli O157:H7 by the FSIS was, certainly, an important first step to making our food supply safer, but it really was just the tip of the iceberg,” said Marler, who also represented Minnesota-native Stephanie Smith whose dreams of being a dancer were shattered after she ate a hamburger tainted with O157: H7.

There are many different strains of E. coli, some of which pose no harm to human health. There are other strains though, like E. coli O111—the subject of this most recent outbreak being investigated by the MDH—that can be just as deadly as the dreaded O157:H7. E. coli O111 is one of the so-called “Big Six”, which are non-O157 serogroups of the Shiga-toxin producing E. coli bacterium.

Even though the Big Six, which includes O111, are responsible for 80% of all non-O157 E. coli infections, it wasn’t until 2012—almost 20 years after O157 began to be monitored—when the USDA’s FSIS decided to finally put together a plan to start testing the nation’s meat supply for non-O157 strains of E. coli.

So what made the FSIS change its position? In part, the answer lies in a study funded privately by Marler.

Over the course of his career, Marler had several run-ins with non-O157 strains of E. coli and saw the devastating affect they had on their victims. One of the worst outbreaks was in 2008 when Country Cottage Restaurant in Locust Grove, OK was proven to be the source of an E. coli O111 outbreak that sickened 344, hospitalizing 71. Of those, 26 developed hemolytic uremic syndrome, a serious kidney and blood complication resulting from E. coli infections.

“I had kind of had enough. We were seeing all these cases of non-O157 E. coli strains there were just as harmful, but nothing was being done. The USDA just continued to claim that these strains weren’t in the food supply. It was really frustrating,” said Marler.

In 2008, Marler began working with nationally respected food scientist Mansour Samadpour and, eventually, commissioned a private study—paying $500,000 out of his own pocket—to see how prevalent the Big Six were in the US meat supply, particularly ground beef. The final results revealed about 2% of the U.S. supply is tainted, which translates to millions of pounds of infected beef per year.

Eventually, this study lead to Marler being a part of a small team of food safety advocates who met privately with Dr. Elisabeth Hagan, the USDA’s Under Secretary for Food Safety. After 90 minutes, Marler felt confident that Hagan understood the threats the Big Six posed to public health.

“From a legal perspective, it has never mattered whether one of these pathogens is considered an adulterant, but it does, and should matter, to the average consumer,” said Marler. “I’ve seen what devastation the Big Six strains can cause and, unfortunately, because they have just started to be monitored, it will likely be years before outbreak, like this one, stop being a fairly common occurrence.”

Marler Clark, The Food Safety Law Firm, is the nation’s leading law firm representing victims of E. coli outbreaks and hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). The E. coli lawyers of Marler Clark have represented thousands of victims of E. coli and other foodborne illness infections and have recovered over $600 million for clients. Marler Clark is the only law firm in the nation with a practice focused exclusively on foodborne illness litigation. Our E. coli lawyers have litigated E. coli and HUS cases stemming from outbreaks traced to ground beef, raw milk, lettuce, spinach, sprouts, and other food products. The law firm has brought E. coli lawsuits against such companies as Jack in the Box, Dole, ConAgra, Cargill, and Jimmy John’s. We have proudly represented such victims as Brianne Kiner, Stephanie Smith and Linda Rivera.