Peanut Processor Faces Lawsuit in Salmonella Outbreak


A lawsuit stemming from the national salmonella outbreak in peanut butter was filed against the Peanut Corp. of America yesterday as yet more companies announced recalls of peanut-related products.

The complaint was filed on behalf of Vermont residents Gabrielle and Daryl Meunier, whose son Christopher, 7, was one of more than 485 people sickened in the outbreak that began in September, has been linked to six deaths and hospitalized more than 100 people.

It came as authorities confirmed they had traced sources of Salmonella Typhimurium contamination to a Blakely, Ga., processing plant owned by Virginia-based Peanut Corp. of America, which manufactures peanut butter and peanut paste - a concentrated product consisting of ground, roasted peanuts - that are both distributed to food manufacturers for use in many commercially produced products including cakes, cookies, crackers, candies, cereal and ice cream.

Testing of a number of products, matched with the genetic fingerprint taken from samples from those sickened by peanut butter and peanut paste, led the FDA to confirm the Georgia plant as the source of the latest outbreak. The strain of salmonella is a common fecal bacterium carried by rats and birds.

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney with 15 years of experience in food safety cases whose firm Marler Clark is representing the Meuniers and 20 other people sickened in the latest outbreak, called on the incoming administration yesterday to improve surveillance of the nation's food supply. "I sincerely hope Mr. Obama will be able to effect change in our food safety agencies and policies. In the meantime, hundreds of Americans are ill, and six families are mourning. All of those families have medical bills, some have lost time at work ... Something has to be done about it."

The Meuniers' son was hospitalized for six days after becoming badly dehydrated as a result of the illness. Gabrielle Meunier told Vermont WCAX-TV she realized later the only food he had eaten that the rest of the family had not were Keebler Cheese & Peanut Butter Crackers. The family was upset the investigation had taken so long and wanted a better process that protected consumers.

While authorities began receiving reports of the illness in September, those reports were first linked to peanut butter on Jan. 9, and later traced to the PCA processing plant. On Jan. 13, the company announced a voluntary recall of some products, which it expanded Sunday.

Companies that purchased peanut butter or peanut paste from the plant continued recalling products yesterday. One of the first to announce its recall - last week - was Kellogg's, whose Keebler brand peanut butter cracker sandwiches had sickened the Meuniers' son Nov. 25.

Also yesterday, a Connecticut school district e-mailed parents to notify them that its schools had removed peanut butter and peanut butter products from cafeterias and vending machines.

Health authorities on Long Island say there have been no new cases since the three reported two weeks ago. All - two in Suffolk and one in Nassau - were minors. However, Grace Kelly McGovern, spokeswoman for the Suffolk County Health Department, said local and state health officials probably will never have an accurate tally because most people affected by salmonella self-treat the infection and do not see a physician.

Among latest recalls

Abbott Nutrition's ZonePerfect Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars and NutriPals Peanut Butter Chocolate Bars in the U.S., Mexico, New Zealand and Singapore.

Clif Bar & Company's CLIF and LUNA branded bars containing peanut butter.

PetSmart: seven Grreat Choice Dog Biscuit products that contain PCA peanut paste.

Nature's Path Organic Foods of Richmond, British Columbia, Canada: Optimum Energy Bars Peanut Butter flavor.

Supermarket chain Wegmans ice cream containing peanut butter is being pulled from shelves.

FDA ADVICE

If consumers can't determine if their peanut butter/peanut paste-containing products or institutionally served peanut butter contain PCA peanut butter/peanut paste, do not consume them.

Efforts to specifically identify products subject to the PCA recall are continuing.