Oregon family tells Congress about boy's salmonella poisoning

Source of Article: http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2009/02/ap_photoj_scott_applewhiterep.html

, 2009, 9:21 PM

healthy, Jacob Hurley, 3, waves at lawmakers during a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill into the salmonella-tainted peanut product that made him seriously ill. The Oregon boy is one of about 600 people nationwide sickened in the food-contamination scandal.

WASHINGTON -- In testimony that was both riveting and unnerving, a father from Oregon told a House subcommittee Wednesday how salmonella-laced peanut products "poisoned" his 3-year-old son.

Peter Hurley, a 40-year-old officer with the Portland Police Bureau, told the House Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations that his son, Jacob, became seriously ill last month, a victim of one of the worst cases of food contamination in a generation.

Also appearing before the subcommittee was Stewart Parnell, owner of the Peanut Corp. of America, blamed for the salmonella outbreak. E-mails released by the committee showed that the company's senior managers did not wait for lab results before shipping a load of peanut product that tested positive for salmonella.

Each time he was asked a question, Parnell invoked his constitutional right not to incriminate himself. He even used the privilege when asked if he had heard the stories from Hurley and two families from Minnesota whose mother and father died from salmonella poisoning.

Parnell's silence after the wrenching testimony focused lawmakers' anger and sparked their promises to reform a food safety system they said is disjointed, riddled with loopholes and lacking tough penalties. The behavior of Peanut Corp., lawmakers said, illustrates the ease with which violators can avoid detection and heavy penalties, including weaknesses that allow producers to "lab shop" for results.

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"Today's hearing will examine how this contamination was allowed to grow unchecked and the collective failure of multiple layers -- the peanut butter manufacturer, the Food and Drug Administration, state regulators and private industry," said the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.

The human costs of those failures became immediately clear as Hurley testified.

Jacob began vomiting and having diarrhea, Hurley told the committee. "He was sallow, lethargic. ... In a few days he began to have blood in his diarrhea."

The pediatrician diagnosed salmonella poisoning and told the Hurleys to feed Jacob "his favorite comfort food" if he became hungry. So Hurley and his wife gave Jacob his favorite snack, Austin Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter.

The crackers contained peanut products from Peanut Corp., which federal officials have linked to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened about 600 people and triggered a recall of 1,800 products ranging from cookies to ice cream to dog food.

Officials believe the salmonella-laden products from the plant are now responsible for nine deaths after Ohio health officials announced Wednesday that an elderly woman who died earlier this year had been infected with the strain involved.

And records released by the subcommittee showed that the plant in Georgia had 12 positive tests for salmonella in 2007 and 2008.

But at the time the Hurleys served the crackers to their suffering son, those details weren't known.

They gave him the crackers -- "the very food that we later found was the cause of his poisoning," Hurley said.

A week later, the family learned that the crackers contained salmonella. William Keene, a state epidemiologist, came to their house and collected food, including six packages of Austin crackers. Three tested positive.

Jacob's story ends happily. He recovered and attended the hearing with his parents and two sisters.

The other witnesses were not so fortunate.

Jeffery Almer and Lou Tousignant, both of Minnesota, told the committee how their mother and father, respectively, died after eating contaminated peanut products from the plant in Georgia.

Almer said his mother survived cancer and was planning for the future. "Cancer couldn't claim her," he said, "but peanut butter did."

While the hearing exposed flaws in the government's response, most of the anger was directed at Peanut Corp.

When a lab official informed a Peanut Corp. plant manager of a positive salmonella test, he said, "Uh-oh," adding that the contaminated food was already on a truck to Utah.

In mid-January, after the national outbreak was tied to his company, Parnell, the owner, told FDA officials that his workers "desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money." In another exchange, he told his plant manager to "turn them loose" after products deemed contaminated were cleared in a second test.

Parnell's response to a final lab test last year showing salmonella was about how much the problem would cost and the impact that lab testing was having on moving his products.

In an Oct. 6 e-mail to Sammy Lightsey, his plant manager, Parnell said time for the testing "is costing us huge $$$$$$ and causing obviously a huge lapse in time from the time we pick up peanuts until the time we can invoice."

Almer expressed a sentiment that lawmakers seemed to share.

"Their behavior is criminal, in my opinion. I want to see jail time," said Almer, whose 72-year-old mother died Dec. 21.

"I want to see them served nothing but the putrid sludge they've been dealing out," he said, adding that the company "now has the blood of eight victims on their hands, along with the shattered health of a known 600 others."

Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the subcommittee's ranking Republican, brought a bucket of recalled products to the hearing. It was wrapped in police tape.

Parnell sat stiffly, his hands folded in his lap at the witness table, as Walden held up the jar and asked Parnell if he would be willing to eat the food.

"Mr. Chairman and members of the committee," Parnell said, "on advice of my counsel, I respectively decline to answer your questions based on the protections afforded me under the U.S. Constitution."

After repeating the statement several times, he was dismissed from the hearing.





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