Salmonella victims seek justice

Christopher Meunier was feeling fine on the morning of Nov. 25 last year.

By that night, the 7-year-old was violently ill with diarrhea and vomiting his parents initially thought was the flu.

It wasn't until the sickness wouldn't pass that the truth was discovered.

"It never occurred to us that it was food poisoning," said Gabrielle Meunier, Christopher's mother. "I was all very, very strange and mysterious."

The Meuniers' story is like hundreds of others, all victims of a salmonella outbreak that claimed at least nine lives and spread illness across the country linked to products processed by the Peanut Corporation of America.

Gabrille Meunier took her story to Congress in February, but now she's taking it to court where she said she hopes Peanut Corp. and owner Stewart Parnell will be held accountable for her son's pain.

Investigations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found both Peanut Corp.'s Blakely, Ga., facility and their subsidiary plant in Plainview were contaminated with the same strain of salmonella known to have caused the outbreak.

The company, which has since filed for bankruptcy protection, surrendered a $12 million insurance policy to the court to be used to settle the legal battle that is to come.

Meunier's attorney, William Marler, came to Plainview Wednesday to examine the West Texas facility as he prepares to represent more than 100 clients wishing to file suit.

A veteran of foodborne illness cases, Marler said after touring the plant he believes the Blakely facility was likely the source of the salmonella contamination later brought to Plainview.

"Even though it's not optimal conditions in here, it's clear that this wasn't the source of the outbreak," he said, adding signs of insect and rodent infestation were still evident in the Plainview plant.

Responsible for one of the largest food recalls in American history, executives at Peanut Corp. have been accused of knowingly shipping out tainted products to save money regardless of the health consequences.

A report from the Texas Department of Health Services found products marked as contaminated were placed in the same area within the Plainview plant as products ready to ship.

With such evidence on their side, Marler said he doesn't believe it will be difficult to prove that his clients deserve payment for the suffering endured.

"It had no defenses, it had no excuses, and it's why the insurance company handed over this money and said 'here, leave me alone,'" he said. "It's, unfortunately, not as rare as you'd like it to be."

Food distributors like Kellogg's also could be found liable in the cases because processing of the raw products were carried out in their facilities.

Calls to the Peanut Corp. and the Plainview plant have not been returned since February.

Meunier said she'll continue to fight for better food safety in the U.S. as long as outbreaks like the one that sickened her son are happening.

Along with salmonella, Christopher also contracted another bacteria affecting his health that his mother believes may be connected.

Though they may win their day in court, Meunier said she doesn't expect her story to have a happy ending.

"My son and my husband and I will live with this probably as long as we are blessed with Christopher's time here on earth," she said. "We don't know what this is going to mean long term. We went through hell and we don't know what this is going to mean for our son in the future."