April 19, 2012 at 4:01 PM ET
The first lawsuit spawned by a salmonella outbreak that appears to be linked to sushi -- which has now sickened 141 people in 20 states plus the District of Columbia -- was filed late Wednesday against Moon Marine U.S.A. Corp, a Cupertino, Calif., seafood importer.
The suit alleges that two Wisconsin women, ages 22 and 33, were hospitalized and still are recovering from salmonella poisoning contracted six to nine weeks ago when they dined, separately, at the same local restaurant, both consuming tuna rolls originally sold by Moon Marine.
“I was just in complete body pain from head to toe and the next day I got bloody diarrhea. I couldn’t even drink water,” said Amy Karfonta, 22, of Muskego, Wisc. Her symptoms appeared six days after she ate the suspect sushi. She then made two trips to local emergency rooms where doctors obtained a stool sample, re-hydrated her with intravenous fluids and examined her colon via a CT scan.
“When they saw how bad my colon was ulcerated, they first thought it could have been Crohn’s disease, or something where I may have had to have my colon removed at 22,” Karfonta said. Her most severe symptoms began to wane after the ER treatments.
The suit, filed by the Houston-based lawfirm Simon & Luke, with co-counsel the Gomez Law Firm, centers on a product called “Nakaochi Scrape” -- frozen backmeat shaved from fish bones and sold by Moon Marine to retailers and distributors across the nation. The “Scrape” wound up in nearly 60,000 pounds of raw, ground yellowfin tuna later recalled by Moon Marine after it was linked to hundreds of salmonella infections during the past two months.
A phone call made by msnbc.com to Moon Marine USA was routed to voicemail and the company did not immediately respond with a comment.
Nakaochi Scrape, injected inside tuna sushi rolls, “looks like ground tuna hamburger,” said Ron Simon, managing partner of Simon & Luke.
“The problem is this (Moon Marine) product got repackaged and resold. There are sushi restaurants that may not even know they’re serving this tuna; they may not even know it’s been recalled,” Simon said. “Also, it comes as a frozen product so it sits on the shelves for as long as six months.
“We’ve got 58,000 pounds of this stuff out there. That’s a lot of sushi -- 29 tons of scraped tuna back.”
Furious, on-the-ground detective work has been conducted, Simon said, to isolate the type of salmonella involved, find the 141 known victims of this outbreak, and determine the U.S. source of the tainted sushi. That work, executed in recent weeks by federal and state health agents, continues as authorities now work to retrace the overseas plant that originally produced this batch of Nakaochi Scrape.
More than 2,500 forms of salmonella are known to exist. When people come to doctor’s offices, clinics or hospitals complaining of severe abdominal pain and diarrhea, medical attendants typically obtain stool samples. Those specimens are sent to the state health departments for DNA typing to pinpoint which of the 2,500 salmonella strains the patients are harboring.
In this outbreak, the tests showed 141 ill sushi eaters all were hit with a rare type called salmonella bareilly, Simon said.
“It has a certain genetic code. When these people test positive, the health departments upload that DNA code into the computer that connects the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and all the other state health departments to see if anybody else has a genetic match. And bam, all of the sudden, there are 141 people that all share the same genetic code,” Simon said. “They are in 20 states and the District of Columbia.”
Health officials have interviewed many or most of those 141 people to ask what they ate the week before getting sick. Those answers also were uploaded into the national computer system -- “and I’ll say that about 80 percent recalled eating sushi,” Simon said. “The investigators dug a little deeper and found out everybody was eating spicy tuna rolls.”
This outbreak is uncommon, the lawyer added, because salmonella is routinely found in the guts of cattle, sheep, hens and infected humans -- not fish.
Simon’s second initial plaintiff is another Wisconsin woman, Amber Azzolina. She ate at the same local sushi restaurant on Feb. 14, consuming a spicy tuna roll, she told her lawyer. Two days later, Azzolina began feeling abdominal pain and passing bloody stools. Two days after that, her husband, Carmen, complained of a stomachache and headache. Amber Azzolina later spiked a fever of 101, was vomiting and still had bloody diarrhea nine days after that meal. On Feb. 23, she checked into a local emergency room where she was treated.
For Amy Karfonta, the salmonella symptoms caused her to miss a planned physical and agility test to land a job with her local police department. She’s not sure, she said, when another opening at the department will occur.
Her health still has not fully restored, she added. She lost eight pounds due to the illness. She still faces a follow-up scope exam to determine how much her colon was damaged.
“That will be in late April because if there’s something still tender in there,” Karfonta said, “they don’t want to rupture it.”