Safeway has pulled prepackaged caramel apples from its shelves, the grocery chain said Tuesday, a day after the family of a person who died from a listeria infection linked to the fruit sued the company.
Shirlee Jean Frey, who died Dec. 2, became ill after buying several caramel apples from a Safeway supermarket in Felton in October, according to the suit filed Monday in Santa Cruz County Superior Court.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the 81-year-old woman was sickened with the same strains of listeria found in apples that infected 28 other people in nine states.
Five of those people have died, although CDC officials say only three of the deaths have been linked directly to listeria. The cause of death in one case is unclear and the other death is believed to have not been connected to the infection.
Brian Dowling, Safeway's vice president for public affairs, said in an email that the grocery chain has pulled the apples.
"The product was supplied to us by a third party, and we are looking into this matter further," he said. "We were previously unaware of any issue as it relates to the specific sale of this product at our stores."
He said Safeway could not discuss the Frey family's lawsuit.
An attorney representing Frey's 87-year-old husband and two sons said health investigators took the remaining caramel apples from the family's house.
"The thought that a caramel apple could sicken and kill people is a little disconcerting," lawyer Bill Marler said. "It's been hard for the family; it's been a shock to them."
Health officials were trying to determine the exact source of the infection. In the meantime, they urged anyone with commercially produced, prepackaged caramel apples at home to throw them away.
Listeria is a foodborne illness that is especially dangerous to pregnant women, newborns, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It rarely causes serious illness in healthy people and can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, nausea and diarrhea.
Because it can be so serious for some people, outbreaks of listeria generally cause more deaths than other pathogens such as salmonella or E. coli. An outbreak of listeria linked to Colorado cantaloupe in 2011 caused 33 deaths.