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U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar makes a point Monday, while Jeff Almer watches, during a discussion about food-born illnesses. Almer's Perham mother died after eating contaminated peanut butter.

Perham woman's death prompts food safety debate

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Don Davis

ST. PAUL - Jeff Almer wants his mother's death to mean something.

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Shirley Almer of Perham died Dec. 21 from salmonella poisoning blamed on contaminated peanut butter. It was the first of at least nine U.S. deaths, including three in Minnesota, attributed to the deadly organism from a Georgia peanut butter factory.

"I want to make a difference," he said after appearing with scientists and the son of another victim in a Monday University of Minnesota roundtable discussion. "It is in honor of my mom that I am doing this."

Almer and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said they are optimistic Congress will change federal law, despite a similar Peter Pan peanut butter problem two years ago.

"I think people are fed up, especially with the level of ethics displayed by this company and how the government then failed also," Almer said. "So I think that may help to spur some changes."

Almer, who lives in the Twin Cities suburb of Savage, is doing what he can to spur those changes. He appeared in front of a congressional panel in Washington last week. Also in Washington was Lou Tousignant, whose father Clifford died Jan. 12 from the same peanut butter contamination that took Almer's mother.

Klobuchar said families like those two will force a change.

"They have said, 'This isn't right and we have got to do something,'" she told the roundtable she convened at the university's St. Paul campus.

Food-safety experts said Minnesota leads the country in tracking down food-borne illnesses such as the salmonella outbreak. Klobuchar and the experts on her panel said the rest of the country needs to follow Minnesota's lead.

Minnesota health and agriculture authorities found a link between Minnesota deaths and illnesses that initially led to a Fargo, N.D., food distributor that sold peanut butter made in a Georgia plant. The plant had been notified several times it violated health standards, but Klobuchar said the owner ignored the notices.

"Nobody had to report this to the federal government," Klobuchar said, calling the incident "shocking."

"This is clearly an enormous loophole that has to be closed," she added.

The senator said that she expects some immediate action, with more legislation in the years ahead to make the country's food supply safer.

Federal authorities say 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses are reported a year, with 5,000 deaths across the country.

Almer, whose mother twice beat cancer, ate the contaminated peanut butter while in a nursing home.

"She was in a rehab facility to get stronger," he said during emotional testimony.

Almer said that Americans do not realize that as many people die every eight months of food-borne disease as terrorists killed in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

Tousignant, of St. Louis Park, Minn., said that one congressman basically told him that "this is just one guy." But, Tousignant added, "this is happening every single year."

Almost annually, some form of food-borne illness epidemic hits the country, such as recent lettuce and jalapeno pepper outbreaks.

"No one has ever gone to jail for this," said Tousignant, whose father lived in Brainerd.

He called for criminal penalties when there is an outbreak like the one late last year and early this year.

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