Dole Food Co. Inc. has been sued over the past few weeks by consumers who contracted a serious form of E. coli from its bagged salads, one of the company's fastest-growing product lines.


So far, lawsuits have been filed involving five people in Minnesota and Oregon who suffered stomach cramps, bloody diarrhea or kidney failure from eating three varieties of the bagged salads. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reported more than 20 people in those states, as well as in Wisconsin, have gotten sick from Dole's salads.


Westlake Village-based Dole, which is working with state and federal investigators to determine the source of the contamination, has recalled 250,000 bags from grocery store shelves.


The recalls involve Dole's "Classic Romaine," "American Blend" and "Greener Selection" varieties. An Oct. 2 FDA alert advises consumers to throw away those three types of Dole salads that have "best if used by" dates of Sept. 22 and Sept. 23.


"It's pretty clear Dole has been definitively implicated in this," said Bill Marler, a partner at Marler Clark who has filed the lawsuits.


Marler, who has been handling E. coli cases for more than a decade, said the lettuce gets contaminated because of groundwater problems on the farms or consumers not washing the lettuce after they open the bags. But identifying the root cause of the contamination is difficult, he said.


"We sued Dole because they are the clear manufacturer," he said. "They're the ones bagging it and have their name on it."


Eric Schwartz, president of Dole Fresh Vegetables, the division that makes the bagged salads, said the FDA spent the past several days at the company's lettuce processing plants in the Salinas Valley, but has "not come up with anything at all." He added that "they are implicating our products, but so far we don't have a direct link."


'Serious concern' over outbreaks
Elisa Odabashian, senior policy analyst with Consumers Union, said most bagged salads are washed several times before they reach consumers and carry the same minimal risk as other fresh produce in carrying E. coli, which shows up in fecal matter in the water.


But Odabashian advises that consumers wash the lettuce, even though the packages say it's not necessary. "The risk is that consumers believe that the bagged salad is clean," she said. "Just because it looks really nice doesn't mean it's clean."

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