Sodexo Foodborne Illness Complaints Multiply

By Steven M. Sellers

Sodexo Inc. is facing a surge of foodborne illness lawsuits over undercooked beef its employees allegedly served at two Marine Corps bases in California.

Tristan Abbott’s Aug. 24 complaint, the most recent of three suits filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, alleges he suffered kidney and brain damage from beef contaminated with a virulent strain of E. coli bacteria.

Sodexo, the food and facilities management giant that serves corporations, schools, and the military, says it provides “quality of life” food and other services at 13,000 sites across the U.S. and Canada. The suits questions whether it lived up to its mission at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and Camp Pendleton in San Diego.

At least 244 Marine recruits were sickened in the outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli last year. Thirty were hospitalized, 15 with life-threatening kidney failure, according to researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bacteria, known as E. coli O157:H7, can cause severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, and life-threatening complications in some cases.

Abbott was placed on dialysis and developed neurological symptoms from the infection, for which he received a medical discharge from the Marines in April, he says.

Investigators from the CDC and the Department of Defense found a “statistically significant association” between ill recruits and undercooked ground beef, for which Sodexo employees only intermittently checked temperatures, the complaint states.

“We recommended the Navy and Marine Corps retain lot information, address food handling concerns, and improve hygiene among recruits,” CDC researchers reported at an Epidemic Intelligence Service conference in April. The investigators also noted “poor hygiene practices among recruits.”

Sodexo told Bloomberg Law Aug. 27 that the source the outbreak remains uncertain.

“We are aware of the lawsuit and the CDC report which, in fact, did not conclusively determine or identify the source of the E.coli,” a Sodexo spokesman said in an email. “As litigation has been filed related to this incident, we are not able to provide a detailed response at this time.”

William Marler, of Marler Clark LLP in Seattle, who represents Abbott in the case, cited the April CDC report as supporting his and other clients’ personal injury claims against Sodexo.

Marler, an experienced food safety lawyer, also didn’t rule out more more lawsuits by recruits who suffered hemolytic uremic syndrome, a kidney condition that causes the abnormal destruction of red blood cells.

“We represent a dozen of the HUS cases and are confident of the facts,” Marler said Aug. 27.

Gordon & Holmes, as well as Marler Clark LLP represented Abbott.

The case is Abbott v. Sodexo, Inc., S.D. Cal., No. 18-cv-01975, filed 8/24/18.