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Peanut Scandal's Weakest Victims

Peanut and peanut products tainted with salmonella have made 604 people sick, sent 187 to the hospital and killed eight.

But those are mere statistics. They do nothing to communicate the anguish that a Wilsonville, Ore., family endured most of last month.

Jacob Hurley was a pretty healthy 3-year-old. But in early January, Jacob's lethargy, vomiting, cramps and bloody diarrhea were clearly more than a day care bug. His parents, Peter and Brandy, rushed him to the pediatrician.

A call from the doctor a few days later with the results of the laboratory's analysis of the child's stool sample announced Jacob had salmonella.

Peter Hurley, 40, a Portland police officer, knew that people had died from eating King Nut Peanut Butter, a product that the Peanut Corp. of America, a Georgia company, had sold in large jars and cans to hospitals, nursing homes, schools and other institutional users.

"We called Jacob's school to see if other children were sick, and none were," recalled Hurley.

The Hurleys had none of the product in their home, and the frustration of not knowing what had sickened their child was exacerbated by the debilitating symptoms that continued to weaken him. The pediatrician told Brandy Hurley she could give Jacob his favorite snack -- Austin Toasty Crackers.

If it doesn't kill a patient, salmonella usually runs its course in four to seven days. But Jacob was well beyond that and wasn't getting better.

A week after the diagnosis, the Hurleys called Oregon's Office of Disease Prevention and Epidemiology. The next night, a Saturday, Dr. William Keene, Oregon's chief epidemiologist, made a house call.

"It was like having the head of the FBI coming out to take fingerprints," Peter Hurley said.

Keene has a national reputation for a bloodhound's tenacity in searching for the source of food poisoning and, as he checked out the family's pantry, it didn't take him long to spot the Austin crackers. Keene knew what the parents didn't, that peanut butter in the Kellogg's product came from the Peanut Corp. of America.

A week later, the epidemiologist called back and told the Hurleys that three out of the six packages of crackers taken from their home tested positive for salmonella. Laboratory analysis matched the DNA of the salmonella in the crackers with what was found in the company's products, Oregon officials said.

Jacob's parents were unknowingly feeding salmonella-contaminated food to their child, whose body was already loaded with the sometimes-lethal bacteria.

It took 11 more days for Jacob's symptoms to dissipate, and today he is recovering.

But his father's anger against the peanut company continues to swell. He was shocked by reports that the Food and Drug Administration had confirmed that the Peanut Corp. of America had knowingly shipped out salmonella-tainted products 12 times in the past two years.

The dangerous web from the Georgia plant spewed to more than 1,200 companies across the nation that used some form of the peanuts in more than 1,950 items. It was almost impossible to go into a store anywhere in the country and not find potentially dangerous food on the shelves.

Yet, the FDA refused to order a mandatory recall of anything using the company's products, claiming it is unable to order a recall under its present laws. Some food-safety activists say that's a bogus claim. Nevertheless, the lengthy delay by manufacturers who have possibly used the contaminated peanut ingredients in voluntarily pulling their products off store shelves has been blamed for the spread of the poisoning.

Peter Hurley angrily questioned whether anyone in the company had a conscience and whether it was "just hoping that no one would get sick and die."

With 14 years as a cop, Hurley equated the company's action to a police officer's firing a loaded gun at someone's head, then saying, "I was hoping that the bullet in the chamber wouldn't fire."

"Both scenarios are utterly unacceptable," Hurley said.

At about the same time that the source of Jacob's illness was identified, 1,600 miles east in Brainerd, Minn., Clifford Tousignat was dying because a nursing home fed him peanut butter.

The 78-year-old winner of three Purple Hearts and the father of six, grandfather of 15 and great-grandfather of 14 suffered for weeks before his death, said his son Lou.

"My father was a good man. He fought for his country. He died because he ate peanut butter," the son said. He questions how can the U.S. lead the free world "if we can't keep our own citizens safe from the food that we eat every day?"

He and Jacob's father are scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee that is investigating the FDA's handling of the peanut poisonings.

Both men, who are among scores represented by Seattle food safety lawyer William Marler, will share their stories before Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Bart Stupak of Michigan. The two Democrats have previously chaired hearings on food-safety issues.

Stewart Parnell, president of the Peanut Corp. of America, and Dr. Frank Torti, acting head of the FDA, also have been called to testify.

Marler, who frequently testifies on food safety before congressional committees, submitted his suggestions for protecting the food supply.

In his lengthy list of recommendations, the highly opinionated lawyer will remind the lawmakers that there are too few legal consequences for sickening or killing customers by selling contaminated food.

"We should impose stiff fines and prison sentences for violators, and even stiffer penalties for repeat violators," Marler said.

He repeated suggestions he made last year that the three main federal agencies responsible for food safety -- the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service and the inspection arm of the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- be merged and adequately funded.

"The present system is trifurcated, which leads to turf wars and split responsibilities. We need one independent agency that deals with food-borne pathogens," he plans to tell the congressmen. "You have a moral responsibility to consumers in your hometown or anywhere U.S. goods are sold."

Meanwhile, the FDA adds to the lists of recalled products, and the FBI continues to examine boxes of documents and samples it collected in a surprise raid Monday on the Georgia plant and PCA's corporate headquarters in Virginia. The Justice Department is evaluating possible criminal charges.

The company, which had repeatedly said that "due to the nature of the ongoing investigations, we will not be able to comment further about the facts related to this matter" now says it's cooperating with government authorities.

This week it said it had shut down its operation in Plainview, Texas, until all government investigations are completed.

According to congressional staff members, the company had fewer than 90 employees in its Georgia plant yet still produced about 3 percent of the nation's processed peanuts.

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