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Slap on the wrist in Sara Lee food poisoning case

by LEIGHTON CHRISTIANSEN | August 17, 2001 | Page 2

CHICAGO--Hundreds of people have fallen ill and at least 21 are dead from eating Ball Park franks. But the Chicago-based food giant Sara Lee, which produces the hot dogs, has gotten away with a slap on the wrist.

The hot dogs caused cases of food poisoning from the deadly Listeria monocytogenes bacteria. In the summer and fall of 1998, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began receiving calls from state health departments about an outbreak of Listeria.

CDC scientists traced the bacteria to a package of Ball Park franks, and testing proved that a hot dog factory in Zeeland, Mich., was the source.

Sara Lee recalled the contaminated products in December 1998, but 21 people had already died from eating the franks.

Why didn't testing at the Zeeland plant itself catch the problem? In fact, workers began detecting a sharp increase in cold-loving bacteria shortly after maintenance was done near the Ball Park franks production line.

Sara Lee's response? Stop testing. "They knew they had a problem with bacteria in the plant," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "But instead of solving it, they chose to ignore it."

When lawsuits began to pile up, Sara Lee called in its chips with government officials. Meat processors have long had a cozy relationship with Washington, keeping regulations limited and inspectors from digging up violations. But Sara Lee has a big hot dog contract with the Department of Defense to worry about, too.

The Feds refused to bring felony charges against Sara Lee, and this June, the company pled guilty to two misdemeanors and paid a $200,000 fine. Thanks to its friends in Washington, Sara Lee has gotten away with murder.

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