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E Coli Contamination in Ground Beef Leads to Paralysis of Young Woman

This story will make you think twice about buying ground beef.

Stephanie Smith, 22, thought she had a stomach virus after she ate a hamburger that her mother grilled for her in the fall of 2007. She had painful aches and camping followed by bloody diarrhea. Then her kidneys shut down, and seizures knocked her unconscious. Her convulsions grew so violent that doctors put her in a coma for nine weeks. When Smith woke up, she couldn’t walk.

She was suffering from a severe form of food-borne illness caused by a strain of E. coli that was traced to the contaminated hamburger meat. The illness damaged her nervous system and left her paralyzed from the waist down.

“I ask myself every day, ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why from a hamburger?’ ”Ms. Smith said.

A recent article in the New York Times suggests that anybody who eats ground beef is taking a health risk. Ground beef is often made from various grades of meat from different slaughterhouses, and it is particularly vulnerable to contamination.

The frozen hamburger meat that Smith ate was made by the company Cargill and labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” But the meat wasn’t all American. Records show that the hamburgers were made from a mixture of meat from Wisconsin, Nebraska, Texas, and Uruguay. Most major producers of hamburger meat follow a similar process because using a combination of sources allows them to save money. However, this increases the chance of contamination. These low-grade cuts of meat are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli bacteria.

“Ground beef is not a completely safe product,” Dr. Jeffrey Bender, a food safety expert at the University of Minnesota, told the New York Times. He said that outbreaks have been on the decline, but “unfortunately it looks like we are going a bit in the opposite direction.”

The strain of E. coli that paralyzed Smith is known as O157:H7. Meat companies have been barred from selling ground beef contaminated by this bacteria since the same strain killed four children in the 1994 Jack in the Box outbreak. Each year, thousands of people get sick after eating ground beef contaminated with O157:H7.

Most cases of E. coli illness resolve themselves without treatment or complication. Approximately 10 percent of the victims will develop hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can affect kidney function. In the worst cases like Smith’s, bacterial toxins damage blood vessels and cause seizure-inducing clots.

If this article doesn’t deter you from buying hamburger meat, be sure to cook your hamburgers to 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any E. coli. Use a thermometer to check the temperature. Also be sure to clean up food preparation and cooking areas well. Dr. Mansour Samadpour told the NYT that E. coli cells will double every 45 minutes in a warm kitchen. Don’t reuse utensils or cutting boards after they have touched raw meat.

Smith has not filed a lawsuit against Cargill, but the food company is paying for her physical therapy in anticipation of a legal claim. Doctors say she will most likely never walk again.

Have you been seriously injured by a contaminated or defective product? If you need legal advice, contact Atlanta personal injury lawyer Michael Neff at 404-531-9700 to schedule a free consultation.