S. Burlington Woman Sues Over Salmonella

A South Burlington mother whose son became ill with salmonella poisoning from peanut butter crackers is criticizing what she said is the slow pace of information coming from health officials.

Gabrielle Meunier, 48, also said she is suing Peanut Corp. of America. The federal Food and Drug Administration has traced the salmonella outbreak to a PCA plant in Georgia.

Christopher Meunier, 7, was hospitalized for six days about seven weeks ago, his mother said. The boy is back in school but hasn’t fully recovered, Meunier said. He still has occasional bouts with stomach pains, arthritis-like pains elsewhere on his body and bloody stools, she said.

Close to 500 people across the nation, including four Vermonters, have been infected with a strain of salmonella tied to the peanut butter, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The infections might have contributed to six deaths, federal health officials said.

Meunier said the lack of information left her mystified and fearful that what she had in her cupboards could make her family sick. “What in the world could we have eaten that nobody else has eaten?” she wondered. She said health officials knew as early as Jan. 13 that Keebler Cheese & Peanut Butter Sandwich crackers were the likely cause of her son’s illness, but she didn’t learn until two days later the crackers were suspect. Meunier said her Internet searches yielded the information. She said health officials should have called salmonella victims to tell them of the suspected tainted foods.

Patsy Kelso, the acting state epidemiologist with the Vermont Department of Health, said state officials received confirmation Saturday that peanut butter crackers were implicated. Kelso said health officials are prohibited from commenting on specific patients due to privacy guidelines, so she could not describe what interactions health officials had with the Meunier family.

The CDC said the Kellogg Co. on Jan. 14 put a precautionary hold on its peanut butter crackers, and two days later recalled the products. A variety of other companies that suspect their peanut butter came from Peanut Corp. of America have recalled their products, the CDC reports.

Meunier said she still had some uneaten Keebler crackers and peanut butter, and said she beseeched health officials to take them for testing. Tuesday, agents with the federal Food and Drug Administration took the crackers from Meunier and told her they’d be tested, she said. Results are expected in one to two weeks, she said.

Kelso said tracking down the source of a disease outbreak takes investigation. Typically, states put information on an Internet Web board, which the CDC analyzes to pick out trends.

When the CDC finds a trend, it has state health officials go back to people who became sick and have them answer detailed questionnaires to help determine the source of the illness.

That’s how the latest salmonella outbreak was traced to the peanut butter, Kelso said.

Meunier said her family has hired Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who Tuesday filed a lawsuit against PCA on behalf of the family in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Georgia. Meunier said she contacted Marler because he is an expert on legal issues surrounding food-borne illnesses.

The lawsuit contends PCA was negligent in allowing salmonella to contaminate its product and asks the court to award an unspecified amount of money to the Meuniers.

Marler said the Meunier lawsuit is the first of many he expects to file against PCA.

Kelso said peanut butter products connected to the salmonella outbreak should have been removed from store shelves by now. Jars of peanut butter are not affected by the recall, she said.