The fast-food chain, McDonald's, is facing an unprecedented legal challenge over the death of a six year old British girl whose parents claim she died of food poisoning after eating a burger.
Stephen and Norah Nash from Hayes, west London, issued legal proceedings in America last week seeking punitive damages against the multinational company. If the case is successful, the firm stands to pay out millions of pounds in compensation.
Blood tests conducted by the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS) concluded earlier this month that Joanna Nash ingested E.coli0157, a virulent found in undercooked burgers, shortly before she died of kidney failure two years ago.
Microbiologists, acting on behalf of the Nash's solicitors claim the bug is linked to one or two McDonald's burgers Joanna ate days before she died.
"Joanna loved McDonald's McDoanld's, most children do," Norah, her mother, a 41-year-old operations assistant for Marks and Spencers, said last week: "We still feel absolutely devastated."
Glancing at a photograph of a smiling Joanna taken on holiday in Barcelona shortly befoer she died, her father Stephen, a 41-year-old engineer, said: "A day doesn't go by without thinking of Joanna. We have all heard the about the dangers of salmonella and listeria, but nobody is really telling us about e.coli."
Lucy Kennedy, of Howe & Co., the Nash's solicitors in London, said she believed the case is the first time McDonald's has been taken to court over a death alleged to ahve been caused by one of its burgers.
"Our clients have instructed that while Joanna ate a variety of foods, she only ever ate McDonald's burgers," Kennedy said. "She would not eat any other beef. Shortly before she fell ill, Joanna and her family visited two McDonald's, one in Barcelona, the other Hayes.
"Our clients are alleging that one of these burgers must have been the origin of the E.coli 0157. They have instructed that Joanna only drank bottled water while in Spain and did not consume any unpasturised milk."
E.coli - dubbed the 'burger bug' in the United States - was first identified in Britain in 1982. The bug, which can also be found in contaminated milk and water, has since killed dozens of people, mainly children and the elderly. Last year there were more than 1,000 cases of E.coli-related poisoning in this country. Up to a dozen people died although precise figures are not recorded.
Although it strikes more rarely than other food-poisoning bugs, its virulence has alarmed doctors. Christine Murphy of the PHLS said "E.Coli has a predilection for children and the potential effect is much more serious than other food poisoning. It is now the most significant cause of kidney failure for children in this country. It is a serious problem which we regard as a public health priority."
The largest outbreak recorded in Britain occured in Scotland in September last year when 100 people were infected through unpasteurised milk. In 1991, without admitting liabilty, McDonald's made a series of out of court payments to people allegedly infected after eating burgers at its Preston branch. About 14 people were taken ill, five of whom received payments.
A McDonald's spokesman declined to discuss the Nash case, but the comapny is expected to contest the action vigourously.
In response to growing concernabout E.coli among medical experts, the government's advisory committee on the safety of food published a report last year by Norman Simmons, a consultant microbiologist at Guy's hospital in London. It called for research into the bug and an extensive programme of education and hygiene. As a result, guidelines for packaging packaging and cooking beef are being prepared.
E.Coli 0157 can cause death rapidly. Joanna was admitted to Great Ormond Street hospital in London suffering from kidney failure in September 1994. After five days on a dialysis machine she suffered heart failure. Doctors tried for 40 minutes to resuscitate her, but without success.
The Nash family hopes that publicising the Joanna's death will highlight the dangers E.coli poses to children. Her father said: "All I would say to other parents is eating burgers, make sure they are cooked properly."