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Jury Says Dairy Wasn’t to Blame for Deadly Cheese Outbreak

July 15, 1989

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ The dairy that supplied milk used in cheese infected with a deadly bacteria was not responsible for the 1985 disease outbreak that killed 48 people, jurors decided Friday.

The panel voted 11-1 that Alta-Dena Certified Dairy could not be held liable along with the defunct Jalisco Mexican Products Inc. of Artesia for some $100 million in victims’ claims. The jury began deliberations Monday.

The decision means there could be little compensation for victims’ families and leaves Jalisco as the sole defendant.

Attorneys for Jalisco argued that Alta-Dena sold tainted milk to the cheese manufacture.

But dairy lawyer Raymond Novell told the jury that bacteria was never found in Alta-Dena milk or dairy herds, noting Alta-Dena supplied 26 million gallons of milk to 30 customers during the period in question and only Jalisco had an outbreak of the severe, flu-like bacterial disease listeriosis.

The bacteria was found in abundance in refrigerators, ants and even employees at the Jalisco plant, he told the panel.

Juror Mary Lou Matthews of Los Angeles said she agreed with Novell.

″If it had been in the herds, then it might have shown up elsewhere. But it didn’t. It was only at Jalisco,″ she said.

More than 100 lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the 30 fetuses and newborns and 18 adults who died in one of the nation’s deadliest food- transmitted outbreaks of listeriosis.

Alta-Dena, the state’s largest dairy, supplied the raw milk to Jalisco to make the soft Mexican-style cheese, which was blamed for the 1985 outbreak of listeriosis.

Most of the victims were unborn or stillborn fetuses or newborn babies, and almost all Hispanic. The epidemic also caused birth defects and a variety of stomach ailments.

The federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta counted 142 cases of listeriosis between Jan. 1 and Aug. 15, 1985.

Victims of the outbreak and their families wanted Alta-Dena to share responsibility.

Jalisco owner Gary McPherson and cheese maker Jose Luis Medina pleaded no contest in 1986 to misdemeanor criminal charges. McPherson was sentenced to 30 days in jail and Medina was sentenced to 60 days. Additionally, they were fined about $48,000.

Listeria bacteria are common in the environment, but cause illness mainly in people with immature or damaged immune systems, such as babies, elderly people and AIDS and cancer patients. Listeriosis is fatal about 30 percent of the time, but also produces mild to severe flu-like symptoms, including fever, abdominal pain, headache, nausea and vomiting.

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