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Sick children's parents sue fast-food restaurants

By Jon Schmitz
Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The parents of two children who became seriously ill after eating at local fast-food restaurants have filed suit, claiming they were served burgers that were contaminated with a bacterium that has been linked to thousands of infections and hundreds of deaths nationwide.

The lawsuits, filed yesterday in Common' Pleas Court, said the children were hospitalized with infections of Escherichia coli 0157:H7, commonly known as E. coli.

Named as defendants in separate suits were the McDonald's and Wendy's restaurant chains. But a spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department said there had been no instances in which E. coli infections were definitively traced to local restaurants.

"We have no smoking gun," department spokesman Guillermo Cole said.

The E. coli bacterium causes an estimated 20,000 cases of infection and 200 to 500 deaths annually in the United States, according to scientists at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It was the culprit identified in a 1993 outbreak in the Pacific Northwest that killed four children and sickened 700 others. The infections were traced to undercooked ground beef served at Jack-in-the-Box restaurants.

"We meet the Health Department standards."

Janine Tyiak,
Wendy's

Attorney Neil Rosen, who represents the two families who sued yesterday, said both children suffered severe and permanent damage and may ultimately need organ transplants.

According to one court complaint, Christine Harpley, 5, of Carrick became ill in May, two days after eating a "Happy Meal" at a McDonaId's on Lebanon Church Road in West Mifflin. She was hospitalized for five months and suffered permanent damage to her kidneys and pancreas.

Lori Workmaster, a regional marketing supervisor for McDonald's, said food safety "is a top priority at McDonald's. We have an outstanding record in that regard. We have processes in place to ensure that nothing like this does occur."

In the other lawsuit, parents of Kaila Lewis, 9, of Beechview, say she became ill after eating at the Wendy's on West Liberty Avenue in Beechview in August 1994. She was hospitalized for nearly a month.

Janine Tyiak, field marketing manager for Wendy's, said the chain had not been notified of the suit. "We're going to need to look into it," she said.

Tyiak said Wendy's trained its managers in safe food-handling and had "many procedural elements" to prevent food contamination. Sandwich makers wear gloves, grill areas are sanitized every 15 minutes and employees must wash hand after all breaks, she said.

"At no time has the Health Department found anything to indicate there is an E. coli experience at one of our restaurants. We meet the Health Department standards," Tylak said.

Cole said local hospitals had reported 16 cases of E. coli infections since August 1994 under a voluntary program. In one case, an 87-year-old woman died.

The department investigated each case but none was definitively linked to a specific restaurant, Cole said.

E. coli infections typically cause severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. In some victims, particularly children under 5 and the elderly, it causes a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, in which red blood cells are destroyed and kidneys fail.

Cole said that five of the 16 victims here developed the complication. Most E. Coli infections result from handling or consuming undercooked ground beef that is contaminated. Cooking the beef to 155 degrees or more kills the bacterium.

Cole said restaurant patrons should cut open their burger to ensure that they are fully cooked and are not pink or red in the center.

"Obviously, if a hamburger is served with the juices running pink rather than clear, it's a sure sign that it's not thoroughly cooked", he said.

Cole urged anyone who had an illness that is believed to be restaurant-related to contact the health department.

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