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Vermont couple sues over salmonella outbreak

John Curran, Associated Press

January 20, 2009

MONTPELIER, Vt.—A Vermont couple whose young son was hospitalized with salmonella poisoning after eating peanut butter crackers filed a lawsuit Tuesday, saying the boy was among the people sickened in a nationwide outbreak linked to peanut butter products.

The suit, against Peanut Corporation of America, was filed on behalf of Gabrielle and Daryl Meunier, of South Burlington, whose son, Christopher, 7, took ill Nov. 25, a day after eating Keebler Cheese & Peanut Butter Sandwich crackers, according to his mother.

He has since recovered. The Keebler crackers are among those recalled by the Kellogg Co., which listed Peanut Corporation as among its suppliers.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Georgia by Seattle lawyer William Marler, who specializes in foodborne illnesses.

"We're convinced, but it's taken us two months to find this out," Mrs. Meunier said Sunday.

Patsy Kelso, acting state epidemiologist for the Vermont Department of Health, wouldn't confirm it, citing patient confidentiality.

"The Health Department can't speak to an individual case -- confirm, deny or even acknowledge knowing anything. But if mom is giving you info, you can report it as such, coming from her," Kelso said.

General Mills Inc. and grocers Kroger Co., Safeway Inc. and Meijer Inc. have joined the growing list of food companies and retailers pulling items with peanut butter amid a salmonella outbreak that has killed at least six people and sickened more than 470 others in 43 states.

The Food and Drug Administration has traced the outbreak to a Georgia plant owned by Peanut Corporation of America, which manufactures peanut butter and peanut paste for distribution to institutions and food companies.

The government has advised consumers to avoid eating cookies, cakes, ice cream and other foods containing peanut butter until health officials learn more about the contamination. Most peanut butter sold in jars at supermarkets appears to be safe, officials said.

The FDA has created a searchable list of recalled products and brands on the agency's Web site. Salmonella, a bacteria, is the most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S., causing diarrhea, cramping and fever.

The Vermont boy, who had nausea, cramps, diarrhea and blood in the stool, spent six days in the hospital and tests of stool samples came back positive for salmonella, his mother said.

But doctors also said they suspected clostridium difficile, an intestinal bacterium that causes diarrhea and more serious intestinal conditions, such as colitis, she said. He had no history of that before falling ill, Meunier said.

After he was sent home, a Vermont Department of Health investigator called to get basic information and later gave the family a 2 1/2-hour questionnaire about foods the boy had eaten in the week before he got sick.

"I finally heard on the news Thursday something about crackers, and the big `Aha!' went up in my head," Meunier said.

An investigator for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration called Meunier on Saturday night and told her the remaining crackers from the package should be tested, but that it might not happen for several days.

"I thought they should be tested right away, so we could get the direct correlation and say to everyone, `Indeed, this is it,'" said Meunier.

Kelso wouldn't say where the other Vermont victims live, but said it's in three different counties.

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