Man steps up after mom's salmonella-related death

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By Nancy Huddleston, Correspondent

When asked what his mother would think about what he’s doing, Jeff Almer thinks she’d say, “Give ‘em hell.”
And that’s just what the Savage resident has been doing for the past month as he’s talked about his mother Shirley’s death due to salmonella poisoning from tainted peanut butter she ate while recovering from an infection at Bethany Good Samaritan Center in Brainerd.
Her Dec. 21, 2008 death was sudden and shocking for the family.

But Almer described the news from the Minnesota Department of Health a few weeks later that her death was a result of salmonella poisoning as a “punch in the gut.”
As the news of his mother’s death started making headlines, Almer ended up becoming the family spokesperson. He said he’s always been concerned about the food contamination issues that are continually becoming more frequent, but with his mother’s death, it took on a whole new meaning.
“When this happened to my mom, I knew I had to do something about it,” he said.
He started out writing to members of Congress over Super Bowl weekend. But before he could get the letters in the mail, he got a call from his attorney, Fred Pritzker.
Pritzker told Almer that S.T.O.P. (Safe Tables Our Priority), a nonprofit, national health organization “dedicated to preventing death and illness from food-borne pathogens,” wanted someone from the family to be a spokesperson regarding the lawsuit they had filed in their mother’s death.
Almer agreed, thinking he’d have to “do an interview with the Star Tribune, or something like that,” but he soon found out differently.
“I was outraged about food contamination before, but now with the death of my mom, I wanted to do something,” he said of the reason he agreed to be a spokesperson.
S.T.O.P. offered to fly Almer to Washington, D.C. to participate in his first of many press conferences to come.
The first was with Rep. Rosa Delauro of Connecticut about her push to have the Food Safety Modernization Act approved in light of the recent deaths linked to the peanut butter salmonella case.
“I told my mom’s story,” he said.
When asked by a reporter at the news conference what he expected the government to do about the salmonella concern, he simply answered, “I expect the government to do better.”
The Almer family was concerned that the problem started in September 2008 and was not fully discovered until three months later.
“There’s something wrong with the system,” he said. “My mother should have never eaten that peanut butter three months after these problems started.”
The Almer family feels they’ve been robbed of their mother’s life. Jeff is one of five children in the family, which also includes his older sisters Vickie and Ginger and younger brothers, Pat and Mike.
At the time of her death, Shirley, 72, was recovering from a urinary tract infection and needed a short-term stay in the Bethany Home in Brainerd. She was scheduled to come home right before Christmas and was looking forward to the holidays, which her family says she loved.
Shirley also was a two-time cancer survivor. In 2007, doctors had removed a couple of dime-shaped spots of cancer on her right lung. Shirley was later declared free of cancer, only to battle a brain tumor and related seizures the following year.
His mother was feeling so good toward the end of her stay there, Almer said, and was even talking about getting a puppy. But days before her scheduled release, she began to complain of stomach cramping and diarrhea, and then she died.
Making a difference
After the press conference, Almer flew home feeling good, like he might have helped.
At the end of the week, Almer got another call, this time from a representative of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee. He was asked if he would come back to D.C. to testify at hearing about the salmonella outbreak.
As someone who’d never experienced the political process, let alone in Washington, D.C., Almer was willing to testify, but needed some help in getting his testimony to the committee. That’s when he called Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office and learned of the senator’s interest in his mother’s case.
A few days later, Almer was back on a plane to D.C. with his two sisters. “I thought I’d be in the hearing room maybe 20 minutes to do my testimony,” he said.
Little did he know that he’d be sitting through an hour and a half worth of comments by members of the committee. Nor did he know he’d be present when the president of the Georgia peanut company, Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) would be testifying.
As he waited his turn to speak, Almer said he made notes on his speech of new things he wanted to say. “I knew I needed to have things written down because there were too many things that I wanted to say,” he said. “I also wanted to speak clearly and get my point across.”
Almer’s testimony was replayed over and over again and resulted in calls from the likes of CNN, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, CBS, Geraldo Rivera and many more. Looking up his name on the Internet now results in a variety of pictures, videos and articles about his involvement with the latest food borne illness outbreak.
Almer started out by telling the subcommittee that his mother was a proud American businesswoman who had a lot of “Sisu,” which is what Finnish people call a person with spunk, fortitude and determination.
“If it was one of her kids who passed away from salmonella-tainted food, or one of the many other contaminants present in our food supply these days, there is no doubt that she would be as outraged as I am today,” Almer testified. “She would be doing the same thing her family is doing in her memory right now: telling her story in order to effect change.”
Almer went on to testify that “greed and avarice of the Peanut Corporation of America” led to the deaths of his mother and seven others. He talked about the need for “a cohesive proactive regulatory system to serve as our safety net” instead of reacting to food outbreaks.
And at the end of his testimony, he suggested a penalty for the people responsible for the deaths due to the salmonella outbreak. “I believe they should get jail time and I believe they should be fed nothing but the putrid sludge they’ve been troweling out to others.”
When asked about that last statement, Almer said those came from the outrage he felt towards the executives from PCA who did nothing but plead the Fifth Amendment during the hearing.
And it’s a statement that garnered even more media attention for Almer. The next thing he knew, more and more media requests were coming into his home. On top of that, Sen. Klobuchar asked him to participate in a panel on food safety, which also brought more media attention his way.
But as he’s dealt with all of this, Almer says he’s kept one thing in mind – his mom – especially her wonderful sense of humor and her love for her family. “She was a spitfire,” he said.
And even during her toughest health battles, Almer said she served as an inspiration for her family, which he continues to draw upon as he’s been involved in speaking up about food borne illnesses.
“She always fought for what she believed in,” he said of his mother.
So he’ll continue to keep fighting, as the debate over the salmonella outbreak continues, even when he feels the pain of grief coming on. So far, he says he’s been able to keep those emotions in check, except when he was at the food safety panel event with Klobuchar last week.
“Lou [Tousignant] asked for a DVD of his dad to be played in tribute to him,” Almer said of another Minnesotan who lost his dad as a result of a salmonella outbreak. “I saw the pain in his face and I had to put my hand over my face because I couldn’t hold it in anymore.”
But it’s that emotion that Almer hopes will keep him going – to continue the fight even when the media attention has died down.



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