The almond giant voluntarily recalled 13 million pounds of raw almonds after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported 25 cases of salmonella linked to the product, but the number of consumers who say they were sickened by salmonella-tainted almonds has risen to 29.
Paramount officials said it's their hope the outbreak has been contained and there will be no further expansion of the recall.
But Seattle food-safety attorney Bill Marler, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of a Kennewick, Wash., family who fell ill after eating Paramount-produced almonds, said there could be more suits in the offing.
"Our phones have literally been ringing off the hook," Marler said Tuesday. "It's not unusual to see this in food illness cases. It could be that a lot of people who were exposed were not caught by the CDC net."
Marler said his firm, Marler Clark, which specializes in foodborne illness litigation, is currently investigating 250 claims "directly connected" to almonds.
"I anticipate the number will actually go up on culture positive tests. It could be at least 10 times bigger than the official number," he said.
Paramount spokesman Chris Tuffli said the company, which produces almonds from its plant in Lost Hills, has not yet seen the lawsuit, but would not comment on pending litigation in any case.
The lawsuit, filed two weeks ago in U.S. District Court in Spokane, Wash., alleges that Shawnna Morris and her two young children fell ill in February, after eating raw almonds Morris bought from a store in Kennewick.
All three were diagnosed with salmonella enteritidis, a form of food poisoning, according to the lawsuit.
California Department of Health Services spokesman Jeff Farrar said officials traced the source of the outbreak to Paramount after testing and interviewing the Oregon cluster of five people first stricken with salmonella.
"They went back and interviewed those individuals to find out what they ate in the week before they got sick, then compared all cases for common foods," Farrar said. "In this particular case there was strong association with consumption of raw almonds."
The "primary point of purchase" was a Costco, where management was able to provide a record of where the almonds came from, Farrar said.
Investigators have since found no trace of salmonella in any of the recalled almonds or at Paramount. They say it's possible the source of the outbreak may never be found.
In the meantime, retailers and almond growers predict the outbreak and the recall's impact on the state's almond industry will be minimal. But Paramount must now confront a major public relations challenge, the outcome of which depends on public perception of how the company handles the outbreak.
Ron Pimentel, a professor of marketing at Cal State Bakersfield, said consumers should react positively to Paramount's aggressive decision to recall 13 million pounds of their flagship product.
"They were certainly wise in doing the recall and not trying to place blame elsewhere," Pimentel said. "But because we never buy almonds under the Paramount brand, consumer reaction may not be that bad."
Paramount almonds are sold under brand names like Kirkland Signature, Sunkist and Trader Joe's.
Pat St. John, spokeswoman for Trader Joe's, said the company removed all one-pound bags of raw, Paramount-produced almonds from each of its 217 stores. The store has not replaced its supply of raw almonds, but have nine other varieties customers can choose from.
Sales of almonds have not suffered, St. John said. "They're very popular nuts in our store and they continue to sell as (they) have before," she said.
Copyright, 2004, The Bakersfield Californian