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Clackamas County man sues ConAgra over salmonella-tainted Marie Callender's meal

Lynne Terry, The Oregonian

A Clackamas County man who was hospitalized after eating a Marie Callender's frozen entree tainted with salmonella filed suit against the manufacturer on Tuesday.

A complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Portland says that Dave Smith was hospitalized four days in May after eating a Cheesy Chicken & Rice frozen meal.

The manufacturer, ConAgra Foods Packaged Foods, recalled the entree late last week in connection with a nationwide outbreak of salmonella that has sickened 30 people in 15 states, including two in Oregon, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The two cases in Oregon include Smith, 40, and a man in his 20s. They both live in Clackamas County, said William Keene, senior epidemiologist with the Oregon Public Health Division. The man in his 20s was not hospitalized and has recovered.

The complaint seeks at least $75,000 in compensation for lost wages, medical expenses and for pain and suffering.

"He's still having some ongoing symptoms which we hope won't turn into problems that can happen with salmonella," said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney and food-borne illness expert who is representing Smith.

A salmonella infection can trigger an arthritic condition know as reactive arthritis, or Reiter's syndrome, that can plague a patient for years.

Marler said Smith is a railroad engineer who regularly bought Marie Callender's frozen entrees to pop into the microwave at work for a quick and easy meal.

"He said he cooked it normally," Marler said. "This time one had salmonella in it."

Teresa Paulsen, a spokeswoman for ConAgra, said the company is investigating the contamination. "At this point, we are looking at an ingredient as the cause since all tests from our production environment have been negative," she said.

Some of the ingredients, in particular the protein such as the chicken, are precooked before packaging. She said the package has explicit instructions on how to cook the entree in a microwave or oven.

"If it's cooked according to package instructions, any pathogen would be killed," she said.

Marler said the consumer should not have to be responsible for killing any bacteria through cooking. "You can't expect the customer to be the kill step," he said.

Paulsen would not comment on the lawsuit though she did say this is the first one she's heard of nationwide.

The first cases in the outbreak -- in this case involving a rare strain known as Salmonella Chester -- cropped up in early April and continued through May. Epidemiologists were able to pinpoint the Cheesy Chicken & Rice meal as the culprit through a questionnaire developed by the Oregon Public Health Division.

The nine-page survey asks patients detailed questions about what they ate before getting sick. Almost everyone mentioned the entree.

Then Friday, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture found salmonella in an unopened package of Marie Callender's Cheesy Chicken & Rice manufactured on Feb. 22, 2010.

Nevertheless, the company is recalling all of the 13.-oz. entrees, regardless of the production date. About 5.6 million packages are sold every year, Paulsen said. About 800,000 were in stores or consumer's freezers when the recall was announced late Thursday.

The meals were sold in 41 stores nationwide, including Fred Meyer, Albertsons, Fry's, Kroger, Safeway, Target, Wal-Mart and WinCo Foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a full list on its website.

Paulsen said consumers should destroy the entree and return the packages to stores for a full refund. The company can be reached at 866-484-9610.

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