In recognition of food safety month, Food Safety News will be profiling people whose lives have been altered or ended by a foodborne illness. In this series, we hope to illustrate the devastating effects that food poisoning can have on victims and their families, and the importance of making our food system as safe as possible.
At the age of 78, Clifford Tousignant had lived a rich life. The father, grandfather, great-grandfather and decorated Korean War veteran had achieved many goals and was working toward another — to make it to his 80th birthday. Sadly, a peanut butter sandwich dealt a blow that a war, diabetes and two amputations had not: it cut short his life.
Born in 1930 in Duluth, Minnesota, Cliff was known during his youth for his thoughtful nature and spirit of adventure. At 16, he lied about his age in order to enroll in the U.S. Army, served his country for the next 22 years. During that time, Cliff fought in the Korean War and was awarded three Purple Hearts.
He also became the devoted father of six children: Paul, Marshall, Susan, Calvin, Jane and Lou, and then the proud grandfather of 15, and eventually a great-grandfather to 14.
Cliff’s daughter Jane recalls how close her father and her son were. Until Cliff moved to a different city, he went to every one of his grandson Brian’s baseball games for 4 years.
“My Dad did so many things for him and with him,” Jane says. “He took him on train rides, boat rides, sent Brian flying in a small airplane and just waited on the runway for his return. Brian loved to always go and spend the night at Grandpa’s.”
Cliff’s kindness extended to everyone. When he first joined the military, he sent his whole paycheck home to his parents to help them during what was a rough financial time for the family.
Later, when things were tight for his daughter and her husband, Cliff came up with household tasks so they could earn some money, and helped them out wherever possible.
And Cliff was generous with intangible gifts as well. At the Good Samaritan Woodland Skilled Nursing Facility in Brainerd, MN, where he moved in November 2008, it was noted that Cliff liked “to visit and talk to people … Mr. Tousignant has a friendly and upbeat attitude.”
Wheelchair-bound after losing his right leg and four toes on his left foot to diabetes, Cliff scootered around the home socializing with other residents.
That is until Sunday, December 28, when staff at the nursing home noticed a marked change in the usually upbeat man. He began to have episodes of diarrhea, which increased in frequency over the following two days until Cliff, distressed and in pain from abdominal cramping, asked to be taken to the hospital.
By Tuesday, despite medication, Cliff continued to pass loose stools, later described as “pure water.” Concerned that he might become dehydrated, doctors transferred him to the emergency room, where he received a blood transfusion to remedy his low platelet count.
The next day, test results from Cliff’s stool sample revealed that he was suffering from a Salmonella infection.
The same day, his urine output began to decrease, and he became increasingly frustrated with the pain caused by the unceasing diarrhea. A very private man, this condition embarrassed Cliff and upset him greatly.
By Jan. 1, 2009, the new year brought a slight improvement in Cliff’s health. His diarrhea had abated a bit, and his mood had improved; however the next few days brought an overall decline, during which Cliff’s body began to ache all over and he became increasingly weak, until he required assistance to get in and out of bed.
By Jan. 4, however, Cliff was feeling much better, and he was released from the hospital that afternoon.
But the family man and war hero was not out of the woods. A week later, after his diarrhea had not abated, Cliff was readmitted to the hospital for what would turn out to be his final 24 hours of life.
That day, Cliff’s son Marshall came to visit at the nursing home and found his father both lethargic and agitated, and then completely unresponsive. Marshall summoned an ambulance, and Cliff was rushed to the ER, where he was noted to be “in such a state that he cannot carry on any useful conversation.”
That night, Cliff’s stools became bloody and he began vomiting. A blood sample determined that the Salmonella infection had moved into his blood stream, making his prognosis grim.
By the morning of Jan. 12, he had again become unresponsive. Shortly after 11 a.m., Cliff Tousignant succumbed to Salmonella poisoning.
Link to PCA outbreak
While Cliff’s family suffered through the agonizing progression of his illness and subsequent death, investigators were working to put together the puzzle of an epidemic of Salmonella poisoning affecting hundreds of people across the nation, including other residents of the Good Samaritan nursing home.
Questioning of victims revealed a common food source among them: peanut butter sold as King Nut brand but manufactured by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).
By the time the outbreak strain of Salmonella was identified in a jar of King Nut peanut butter on Jan. 9, 2009, and the product was recalled the following day, the discovery of the outbreak source was too late for Cliff.
Cliff, who had always enjoyed peanut butter — eating it on rye crisps as a child and later in peanut butter sandwiches at the nursing home — had died because of his preference for this food, which he had eaten almost daily in the weeks preceding his illness.
Ultimately, Salmonella-tainted peanut butter products manufactured by PCA sickened at least 714 people in 48 states and claimed 9 lives.
In a February 2009 Congressional hearing on whether or not to press charges against PCA, Cliff’s son Lou remarked:
“Many of our family members have a difficult time going on with our daily lives. We can no longer pick up the phone and ask him what game he is watching. My nieces and nephews will no longer get to crawl over Grandpa when they go home or to visit.”
Salmonella typhimurium is one of the two most common types of Salmonella bacteria in the United States. Salmonella is an enteric bacterium, meaning that it lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. It is transmitted to humans through eating contaminated foods, or through infected food service workers.
Salmonella lodges in a human’s small intestine, where it multiplies and then enters the bloodstream within 24 to 72 hours. Most patients experience diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after exposure, and recover anywhere from 4 to 7 days after onset of illness.
However, certain groups, including the elderly, immunocompromised individuals, children and pregnant women are more susceptible to severe complications from a Salmonella infection.
Death rates for infectious diarrheal disease alone are five times higher among people over 74 years of age than in the next highest group (children under four years of age), and 15 times higher than among young adults.
This high rate of severe symptoms among the elderly is thought to be due to a reduced acidity in the gastrointestinal tract that arises as a result of aging and a higher prevalence of preexisting medical conditions, as well as a deterioration of the immune response system.
Given his age and the fact that he suffered from a series of conditions (none of them life-threatening at the time), Cliff was in a demographic more susceptible to have a severe reaction to Salmonella bacteria.
Sadly for Cliff, after overcoming numerous life-threatening obstacles, he lost the fight for his life against an infection caused simply by eating lunch.
“My father was a good man,” testified Lou Tousignant. “He fought for his country. He died because he ate peanut butter.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified King Nut as the manufacturer of the peanut products that sickened or killed victims of the outbreak. Peanut Corporation of America manufactured the contaminated peanuts.