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Almond recall grows; nut processor is sued

The FDA says more outlets are likely affected by the Kern County product.

Mike Lee -- Fresno Bee Staff Writer

May 25, 2004

A prominent Seattle food-safety attorney filed suit Monday against a Kern County nut processor whose raw almonds are the target of a greatly expanded product recall.

The Food and Drug Administration says nuts potentially tainted by salmonella bacteria likely are in a wider array of packages and stores than first announced.

"More labels and more (brand) names will be coming out," said Jack Guzewich, director of emergency response in FDA's food-safety division. "It's not done yet."

The FDA has tentatively linked 18 cases of food poisoning to raw almonds from Paramount Farms of Lost Hills in Kern County, the state's largest almond grower. Potentially related illnesses still are being investigated.

The FDA said Paramount's raw almonds may be contaminated with salmonella, bacteria that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children and others with weak immune systems. Symptoms include fever, vomiting and abdominal pain.

Over the weekend, Paramount expanded its recall to 13 million pounds from 5 million pounds. It also said that it immediately would start pasteurizing all almonds before they are shipped.

"We have taken what we consider to be very aggressive and precautionary measures to assure customers of the integrity of our products," said Paramount spokesman Chris Tuffli.

Costco Wholesale Inc. on Monday mailed recall warnings to 780,000 members nationwide who bought almonds in recent months.

Next up for the giant wholesaler: alerting international customers who also may have tainted almonds. Some of the raw nuts were shipped to Mexico, Japan and six other countries, the FDA said.

Guzewich at the FDA said the food safety problem was discovered using an Internet-based reporting system for state health agencies. By tracking the salmonella's bacterial "fingerprint," health experts were able to link a handful of illnesses in Oregon, then connect those to cases in Utah, Alaska, Arizona and Washington.

On Monday, Marler Clark LLP filed the first food-poisoning suit against Paramount in federal district court in Spokane. The complaint said members of a Kennewick, Wash., family were hospitalized with salmonella-related illnesses after eating Paramount's almonds purchased at Costco. The suit didn't specify how much the family is seeking in damages.

"There have been prior incidences of salmonella-tainted almonds that have led to illnesses and recalls," said William Marler, attorney for the family, in a statement. "Paramount Farms should have known this and taken appropriate precautions to make sure it didn't happen again."

Tuffli, the Paramount spokesman, said he hadn't seen the lawsuit and that it would be premature to comment.

Paramount's raw almonds initially were reported to have been sold under three brands: Sunkist, Trader Joe's and Kirkland, which is distributed by Costco.

The FDA says customers who bought any raw almonds with those labels marked with a "best before" date of August, 21, 2004, or later should check with the store where they bought them to see if the nuts came from Paramount. Paramount's customer hotline is (800) 496-5168.

Roasted, blanched, slivered and sliced almonds are not part of the recall because the processing kills bacteria.

Trader Joe's said last week that it had destroyed its potentially dangerous almonds. Costco said nuts in its Sacramento-area stores came from a different processor. The Sunkist-labeled almonds were sold nationwide but in very small quantities.

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