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The Bug That Ate The Burger

E. Coli's Twisted Tale of Science in the Courtroom and Politics in the Lab


Across the country, USDA-funded researchers are in a headlong race looking for treatments for America's 98 million cattle and the estimated trillion pounds of manure they produce each year. The National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. says it is not convinced slow-fattening hay is better for E. coli control and cattle health than fast-fattening grain. It is watching research, but thinks controls belong in the slaughterhouse.

Whether it is a case of waking up to the existence of E. coli O157:H7 or feedlot practices of a burger culture giving rise to a sinister new bug, with every year that passes with O157:H7, America dies a little. In 1991, swimming in a lake was associated with infection. In 1996, outbreaks caused by fresh apple cider forced pasteurization of American fruit juice. In 1998, a child died after contracting E. coli in a wading pool, and this summer the CDC is warning against swallowing water in swimming pools and taking kids to petting zoos.

The same kind of precautions are slowly whittling away at British life. Microbiologist Hugh Pennington led the public inquiry into a Scottish outbreak that killed 25 people in 1996. "The paradox about O157," he says, "is that there's a hell a lot of it out there. Yet the number of people getting sick is relatively small. There's a tricky balance to strike. Clearly we can't stop people going to the countryside but we can't afford for kids to get their kidneys wrecked."

If someone is winning, it is Seattle lawyer Marler. "Can they [industry] absolutely guarantee a 100% safe product? Absolutely not. Should consumers expect it? Absolutely not. But they can do better. If they do make somebody sick, they need to step up and take care of them."

Marler has made everybody from school districts to burger chains step up and take care of victims, to the tune of $75 million in the last eight years, he says. He now advertises on the Internet as an E. coli specialist.

"To be honest, I always thought that, post-Jack in the Box, I'd go back to trying all the other kinds of cases, medical malpractice or product cases," he says. "I never in my wildest dreams thought you could have a firm of six lawyers and 10 staff and make a great living and do good work on the back of one pathogen."

* How to cook safe hamburgers. H3

* A pathogen's progress. H3

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