Death detailed in Star series ‘Beef’s Raw Edges’ sparks lawsuit

The family of Robert Danell, a Minnesota man with Down syndrome who died in 2010 after eating E. coli-contaminated beef, has filed suit against three beef companies and several retailers.

Danell’s story was first told in a series of articles published in The Kansas City Star in December titled “Beef’s Raw Edges.”

The Star’s series reported that Danell, 62, died after consuming beef involved in an E. coli outbreak linked to ground beef and mechanically tenderized steaks that sickened 25 people in 17 states.

The articles noted that Minnesota health officials traced the contaminated beef to a plant in Kansas and said the ultimate likely source of the contamination was a slaughter plant in Greeley, Colo., operated by JBS USA.

But federal officials said they could never positively pinpoint the source of the ground beef that the lawsuit alleged killed Danell. Danell was hospitalized on Jan. 9, 2010, suffering from bloody diarrhea. He died of kidney failure 10 days later.

“They figured out it was E. coli, and by that time there was no way to treat it, and that pushed him into his early death,” Danell’s brother, Bill, told The Star late last year. “They said he could have gotten it from a hamburger, but we don’t really know for sure.”

Separately, federal officials did issue a recall for the contaminated tenderized meat products, which sickened several other consumers in the same outbreak.

Danell’s family told The Star later that they were unclear about precisely what happened to Robert until they read the newspaper’s series, which they said prompted them to contact an attorney.

The suit, filed Jan. 8 in Stearns County, Minn., District Court, names JBS USA, Tyson Fresh Meats and Beef Products Inc. (BPI), a company that makes a lean beef additive for hamburger, referred to in some media reports as “pink slime.”

The lawsuit alleges that JBS supplied meat to BPI that was used in hamburger additive sold to Tyson. It was that product that Danell consumed in December 2009, the suit said.

The Danell suit alleges that “BPI was a manufacturer of food products, including a component of the ground beef that caused Robert Danell’s E. coli infection and resulting death.”

JBS had no comment on the suit. A Tyson spokesman said, “We do not believe our beef operations were the source of the illness that led to Mr. Danell’s unfortunate death. In fact, Minnesota state health officials reported they were not able to conclusively determine the ultimate source.”

BPI founder Eldon Roth said in an open letter about the suit that “while every one of us that produces food regrets any loss associated with a foodborne illness from any source, the lawsuit lacks merit and we will be aggressively defending ourselves and our reputation.”

Beef Products Inc., whose product became known in some news reports as “pink slime,” is separately suing ABC News and several whistleblowers for more than $1 billion over a series of reports about the product in March last year that BPI alleges were libelous.

Danell’s lawsuit is being handled by Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who also represents some of the defendants in the BPI libel suit.

Marler told The Star recently that he was not aware of BPI ever being successfully sued in an E. coli case such as the one he filed on Danell’s behalf. In fact, BPI has long asserted that an ammonia treatment used in its hamburger additive kills E. coli and other pathogens.

Related stories from Kansas City Star