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Washington man files suit vs. Kellogg, claiming salmonella poisoning

Lynne Terry, The Oregonian

March 10, 2009

A Washington state man and his daughter had to be hospitalized in January with severe symptoms of salmonella poisoning after eating peanut butter crackers.

They recovered but Bill Rector just filed the first lawsuit of his life anyway in hopes of paying for thousands of dollars in medical bills and holding the food industry accountable.

"This could happen again with another product in three months," said Rector, who lives with his wife and daughter in Blaine near the Canadian border. "It makes you wonder about what you buy in the grocery store. I hope more people come forward to make sure that these outbreaks don't happen again."

The lawsuit comes as the Food and Drug Administration issued safety guidelines on today aimed directly at companies that make food with peanuts.

The guidelines warn that improperly roasted peanuts could harbor salmonella and that baking might not always kill the bacteria. They urge manufacturers to buy ingredients from trusted suppliers that have processes in place to kill salmonella.

"In many respects this memo is telling companies that buy products to use common sense," said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney specializing in food poisoning cases who represents the Rector family and a Wilsonville couple, Peter and Brandy Hurley, who also filed suit.

Their son was sick for 11 days after eating the same thing -- Kellogg's Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter.

Both the Hurley and Rector lawsuits accuse Kellogg Co. of failing to ensure that the crackers were "safe, wholesome, free of defects" and of negligence in "adequately supervising" its food suppliers.

Kris Charles, a Kellogg spokesperson, said in an e-mail today that the Michigan-based manufacturer does not comment on litigation. It is now facing seven suits nationwide in connection with the outbreak.

Since the first salmonella case last year, 683 people have been sickened, including 13 in Oregon and 23 in Washington state. Nine people have died, making this one of the deadliest instances of food poisoning in U.S. history.

The outbreak has also sparked a massive recall, with more than 3,000 products taken off shelves and destroyed. They include everything from cookies and ice cream to packaged dinners and dog biscuits. Even organic roasted peanuts have been pulled.

All of the recalled items were made with ingredients from Peanut Corp. of America, which is facing a criminal investigation.

Salmonella was found in King Nut peanut butter made with Peanut Corp. ingredients as well as Austin peanut butter crackers.

Rector, 32, said that he and his 3-year-old daughter were hospitalized for three days. Their medical insurance covered 85 percent of the cost, leaving the family with $8,000 in medical bills.

Rector is seeking unspecified damages in the suit. As a manager for a meat department of a grocery store, he said he is also trying to make a point about food safety.

It is not difficult to prevent salmonella infections, but Peanut Corp. did little about the problem, Rector said.

Federal inspectors found salmonella in Peanut Corp.'s plant in Blakely, Ga., along with evidence that the company sold ingredients even after they tested positive for salmonella. A private lab also found salmonella at Peanut Corp.'s plant in Plainview, Texas.

Both plants are closed and Peanut Corp. has filed for bankruptcy.

But manufacturers, such as Kellogg, can also be held accountable under the law, Marler said.

"One thing that's great about the American justice system is that it's a great way of focusing a company's attention on the problem it created," Marler said.

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