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Consumers sue Nestle, but FDA still baffled

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 26-Jun-2009

One week on from Nestle’s recall of its Toll House cookie dough, the source of an E. coli strain that has sickened 69 people across 29 states still has FDA officials baffled, but lawsuits have already been filed.

The food giant said it had recalled 46 of its refrigerated cookie dough products as a precautionary measure after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notified it an investigation had been launched following an outbreak of E.coli illnesses linked to eating raw cookie dough. A CDC report said: “Preliminary results of this investigation indicate a strong association with eating raw prepackaged cookie dough.”

But both the company and the FDA have said that the E. coli strain linked to the illnesses has not yet been detected in Nestle’s cookie dough. Nestle USA said: “Nestle has been, and will continue to cooperate fully with the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control in this investigation. Providing safe, high quality products to our consumers is our number one priority.”

Withheld records

However, the Wall Street Journal reported today that Nestle has refused the FDA access to its records in the past, according to reports released by the FDA in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the paper. The Wall Street Journal said that the reports, which cover the past five years, show that the company “refused to give inspectors access to pest-control records, environmental-testing programs and other information”.

But Nestle USA is not required by law to reveal its records unless the FDA has a reasonable belief that the company’s products may cause serious harm to human health.

This situation could change if bipartisan legislation currently moving through the House is passed. The Food Safety Enhancement Act would give the FDA greater access to company records, as well as giving it the power to issue mandatory recalls.

Lawsuits

Meanwhile, lawsuits against Nestle have already started to roll in. One food safety law firm has taken on a lawsuit against Nestle on behalf of a seven-year-old Georgia girl who became sick after eating the cookie dough while baking with her grandfather.

The firm, Neblett, Beard & Arsenault, said it has been contacted by “many victims associated with this outbreak”.

Other lawsuits against the food giant have been filed by an 18-year-old Californian woman, a Colorado family on behalf of their six-year-old daughter, and an 18-year-old Washington State woman.

According to the CDC, two-thirds of those infected with the E. coli strain are children. No one has died.

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