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Lawyers visit Ga. peanut butter plant

Associated Press

April 9, 2007

ATLANTA (AP) -- More than a dozen plaintiffs' lawyers and investigators inspected the south Georgia peanut butter plant linked to a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 400 people nationwide.

Engineers, photographers, mapping specialists, attorneys and videographers on Monday scouted the ConAgra Foods Inc. plant in Sylvester, Ga., that produced the Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter recalled in February after the outbreak.

The Omaha, Neb.-based company said it traced the salmonella outbreak to roof leak during an August rainstorm and a faulty sprinkler system.

The inspectors also looked at machinery throughout the plant, said Bill Marler, of the Seattle firm Marler Clark, one of several trial lawyers who organized the trip.

"When you do have a factory that's manufacturing this much product, there's some small glitch in the system and it gets amplified," said Marler, whose firm is representing more than 5,000 clients.

ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said moisture from faulty sprinklers and a leaky roof likely mixed with dormant salmonella bacteria in the plant that may have come from raw peanuts and peanut dust. Although she said the plant was cleaned thoroughly after the roof leak and sprinkler problem, the salmonella remained and somehow came in contact with peanut butter before it was packaged.

"We may never know the exact details of how it happened," said Childs. "But we know the most probable causes. And part of our renovation plan is to address those most probable causes and take the opportunity to update the entire facility."

The team of inspectors was organized by a handful of law firms that represent the bulk of the cases against ConAgra, but Marler estimates more than 250 law firms may eventually file a claim.

More inspections are likely on the way for ConAgra.

Already, an industrial hygienist and other inspectors are scheduled to visit Sylvester within a week to probe the plant's grinders, roasters and other equipment, said Jerrold Parker, a plaintiff's attorney whose firm is also involved in the inspection.

"It's standard procedure in a case like this," said Parker, from the New York law firm Parker & Waichman, which is representing more than 3,000 clients in the case.

ConAgra Foods Inc.:

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