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Tainted almonds prompt lawsuit

An attorney from Kitsap County has filed the suit over an outbreak of salmonella.

Julie McCormick, Sun Staff

May 26, 2004

The first lawsuit over a salmonella outbreak that might be over with was filed this week by a leading Seattle-based food-safety attorney.

Attorney William Marler, a longtime Kitsap County resident from Bainbridge Island, filed the U.S. District Court lawsuit against Paramount Farms of California for a Kennewick family who ate tainted raw almonds in February.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a recall last week of 5 million pounds of the raw almonds after five cases in which they were the common denominator were identified in Oregon.

Paramount Foods voluntarily expanded the recall Saturday to include 13 million pounds and eight other countries after investigators in other states uncovered more cases.

So far, 18 victims have been confirmed, but others are anticipated. The only other Washington victim is from King County.

The Kennewick family bought raw almonds at a Costco store in January. Three of them became sick enough to need hospitalization. The youngest, a 9-month-old boy, is recovering slowly, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit contends Paramount Farms was negligent by not pasteurizing its product. Unpasteurized raw almonds from California caused Canada to warn its citizens after linking them to 140 salmonella cases three years ago, according to Marler.

That was the only previous case of a salmonella outbreak caused by raw almonds, according to the epidemiologist who is leading the investigation, Dr. William Keene of Oregon Public Health Services.

"The first outbreak was a fluke, the second is sort of a wake-up call" to the industry, Keene said.

Company spokesman Chris Tuffli said Paramount Farms performs ongoing testing on its raw products. Neither the company nor the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet detected salmonella, he said.

Keene said much of the tainted product is probably off the shelves by now, and no cases have occurred since April 27.

"The vast majority of health problems have already happened," he said.

Keene said he expects the list of cases to grow as other state health departments continue to test.

The company began pasteurizing all its raw almonds with expansion of the recall, and it will continue, Tuffli said.

The initial recall was for raw almonds sold at Costco under the Kirkland Signature brand, and at other outlets under the Trader Joe's and Sunkist brands.

Costco pulled all the product from its Oregon stores even though it was newer and came from a different producer, then sent out 1 million letters alerting customers, Keene said.

The expanded recall involves almonds sold for many purposes under many brands.

Retail outlets typically package raw almonds in cellophane bags; they should not be confused with roasted or processed nuts sold in cans.

Most of the Paramount Farms product already has been consumed or has been processed, roasted or otherwise altered, eliminating salmonella, the company announced, and Keene agrees.

But almonds have a long shelf life and people may still have them at home, he said.

Salmonella can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems. Many people get no symptoms from salmonella exposure.

Symptoms include fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps.

In rare cases, salmonella can cause arterial infections like arthritis.

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