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Second Marine Corps recruit sues food vendor responsible for E. coli outbreak

Recruits stand in formation at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego on March 1, 2018.

JOSE GONZALEZ/U.S. MARINE CORPS PHOTO

By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | The Orange County Register | Published: August 24, 2018

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — A second Marine recruit who became ill last year after exposure to E. coli at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, has filed a federal lawsuit against a food service provider claiming its negligent food handling cost him a job in the Marine Corps and led to long-term health issues.

The lawsuit against Maryland-based Sodexo Inc. claims Michael Baker Jr., 21, suffered kidney failure and required dialysis as a result of the illness and then was discharged from the Marine Corps for unspecified reasons in March. Baker fell ill after eating food provided by Sodexo.

According to the lawsuit, filed Aug. 8 in U.S. District Court in San Diego, Baker suffered permanent kidney damage. He is seeking a “fair and reasonable amount” for his health care and for dismissal from his enlistment contract.

Baker, of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, is the second recruit at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot to sue Sodexo after becoming ill following exposure to the E. coli bacteria.

On July 30, Vincent Grano, 19, of Lake In the Hills, Ill. filed a lawsuit claiming his epilepsy and ongoing seizures — which the lawsuit links to contracting E. Coli — led to his discharge from the Marine Corps on June 29, 2018. Epilepsy is a disqualifying condition for military service.

As with Grano, Baker’s lawsuit accuses Sodexo of not complying with regulatory provisions related to the manufacture, distribution and sale of food. It also states Sodexo violated state, federal and local safety regulations in manufacturing and distributing the food and was negligent in its food preparation and not living up to its corporate guidelines, which include making sure its food does not contain E. coli.

The lawsuit states Baker was among more than 300 Marine recruits affected in an E. coli outbreak at the San Diego recruit depot that may also have affected recruits at Camp Pendleton. The recruits were treated at local hospitals in late October and early November.

Both Baker and Grano are represented by Frederic L. Gordon of the Gordon & Holmes law firm in San Diego.

Following the outbreak, preventative medicine units at Naval Medical Center San Diego and Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton inspected all mess halls for cleanliness, food storage, and handling procedures. Food samples were sent for testing to the U.S. Army Public Health Command at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.

Later, investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention inspected the recruits’ barracks, bathrooms and cafeterias, where meals were served to 2,000 to 3,000 recruits at one time. Investigators identified two strains of the E. coli bacteria, which they determined came from undercooked ground beef served in their cafeterias, the lawsuit states, citing the CDC report.

More than 200 of the recruits were affected by the more serious Shiga toxin-producing E. coli from food products prepared by Sodexo Inc, the lawsuit states. Fifteen recruits — including Baker and Grano — developed a life-threatening complication called hemolytic uremic syndrome. Six of the fifteen recruits became critically ill. All have survived.

“Environmental findings, including reports from recruits, showed that Sodexo Inc.’s employees routinely undercooked ground beef served to recruits, and only intermittently checked the temperature of foods, including ground beef, using an appropriate thermometer,” the lawsuit states, citing the CDC report. “Moreover, the environmental investigation showed a number of instances of temperature abuse involving other foods.”

Enrico Dinges, director of public relations for Sodexo, said earlier this month — and reiterated on Thursday, Aug. 23 — that his company is aware of the lawsuits and the CDC report but said the report “did not conclusively determine or identify the source of the E. coli.”

“It is important to note that Sodexo is a recognized industry leader in food safety and quality assurance making the safety, health and wellbeing of our clients and customers the number one priority,” Dinges said in an email. “Sodexo proudly serves nutritious, healthy and delicious meals to millions of customers every day in North America.”

Baker arrived as a new recruit at MCRD on Oct. 16, 2017 and became sick Oct. 25. He initially reported painful stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting, according to the lawsuit. When his condition worsened he was ordered by his drill instructor to go to the medical clinic at MCRD. From there, he was taken to the Balboa Medical Center by ambulance and was diagnosed with hemolytic uremic syndrome.

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