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Gresham teen pays high price for tasting a sweet treat

Lynne Terry

The Oregonian

June 20, 2009

One day while shopping, a Gresham mom, who had long shunned sweets to keep her family's diet healthy, gave in to her daughter's pleas for a special treat.

Melissa Kitchens, 15, was craving chocolate chip cookies. So, her mom, Judy Akers, 38, reached for a tub of refrigerated Toll House chocolate chip cookie dough made by Nestle USA, a company that she trusted.

It was a mistake. The decision cost her family weeks of pain and anguish in a nationwide food poisoning outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 associated with Nestle cookie dough. Nearly 70 people in more than two dozen states have been sickened, 25 have been hospitalized and seven people suffered kidney failure.

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration warned the public to throw away any Nestle Toll House dough, while the company, based in Glendale, Calif., recalled nearly 50 products, or 300,000 cases of refrigerated cookie and brownie dough sold to grocery stores across the country.

By then, Melissa had recovered physically, but she will have to deal with the fallout from her cookie venture for some time to come.

Melissa made the cookies in early May. While baking, she tasted some of the dough, which a lot of people do even though it is not supposed to be eaten before baking. Her dad, Mike Kitchens, 37, stuck his finger into the tub as well, picking out sweet, chocolaty bits.

The two of them soon came down with cramping and diarrhea, typical symptoms of food poisoning.

Mike recovered after about four days.

But Melissa continued to be severely ill.

"We thought it was something that she had eaten at a barbecue," her mom said.

When Melissa didn't get any better, her parents took her to the doctor, who ran blood tests and eventually a stool test, which turned up E. coli O157:H7, a strain of bacteria found most frequently in ruminant animals such as cattle, goats and sheep.

Although Melissa was not hospitalized, she was ill for three weeks that came at a crucial time -- in the run-up to her finals at Gresham High School. It was her sophomore year and she was taking eight classes in hopes of having more flexibility in her junior and senior years.

"It was hard for me to do my work," she said. "I'd call my friends, but I'd get hot and sweaty, and my stomach would cramp up. I tried to deal with it, but it got to be too much so I couldn't do anything. I had major headaches, diarrhea and cramping."

Melissa managed to take all of her tests, but she suspects that she failed at least two finals, which count heavily in overall grades.

"I'm mad about it because I really want to be in school," she said. "Now I will have to redo classes. If I would never have gotten sick, I would have aced my finals."

The experience taught Melissa one valuable lesson, though. "I learned not to eat raw cookie dough," she said. "It makes me watch what I eat. Now I'm leery about some stuff."

Her parents are angry, as well. In fact, they think the company owes them and all of the other adults and children who have gotten sick a public apology.

Nestle has not contacted the family. A spokeswoman, Laurie MacDonald, said the company learned Wednesday night that it was implicated in the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Although its Toll House chocolate chip cookie dough is considered the main culprit, the company recalled all of its cookie and brownie dough as a precautionary measure.

That move came too late for the Gresham family, which lost faith in a brand it thought was safe.

"Nestle has been around for forever," said Akers, who specifically picked the Toll House dough out of health concerns.

"I didn't feel like I had anything to worry about."

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