BY MARYALICE MELI MAMELI@NCNEWSONLINE.COM





An Ellwood City woman loved peanut butter so much, she could eat it from a spoon. But Roberta Straley Barkay's love may have caused her death on Jan. 30, led to her husband, William's, current dependence on dialysis and sickened her daughter, Alana Laird of Phoenix. All three had eaten the Peter Pan peanut butter in jars with the product code starting with 2111 that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said may be contaminated with salmonella. Wampum resident Dolly Hackett said her sister Roberta loved peanut butter and ate it every day. Another sister, Judy DiTullio, said Roberta and a deceased sister, Jean Izzo, were peanut butter fanatics, combining the spread with bananas, tomatoes and other foods. Last fall, the Barkays bought four jars of peanut butter in Youngstown. In November, William Barkay, 86, was hospitalized with the typical symptoms of salmonella that resemble the flu: severe gastrointestinal pain, diarrhea, nausea, fever. He was transferred in early December to Ellwood City's Mary Evans Extended Care Center, where he received dialysis treatment several times a week, Hackett said. However, he was discharged this week to be cared for at home when his insurance for extended care ran out, according to DiTullio. Roberta Barkay, 76, became ill in January with the same symptoms as her husband, as well as severe dehydration. In this weakened state, she developed sepsis, blood poisoning, and died. At that time, no one knew about the tainted peanut butter, so testing for the infection, which involves taking stool samples, did not occur. Attorney Robert N. Peirce III said Wednesday it is "the family's belief" that salmonella-tainted peanut butter was responsible for Roberta Barkay's death. At this point, he said, salmonella cannot be confirmed as the cause, which is why the family retained his firm to investigate the death. Wednesday, Peirce and attorney Joseph Bellissimo filed in Lawrence County's Common Pleas Court what may be the nation's first wrongful death lawsuit against the makers of Peter Pan peanut butter -- ConAgra Foods Inc. of Omaha. Peirce said the lawsuit will enable them to get more information about the cause of death. Peirce --amp; Associates of Pittsburgh and Bellissimo --amp; Peirce of Ellwood City represent 30 clients in five states who have suffered from salmonella-related illnesses as a result of eating contaminated peanut butter, he said Wednesday. Laird, 55, had been in Ellwood City for her mother's Feb. 2 funeral, Peirce said. Shortly after returning home to Arizona, she became violently ill. The only food she had eaten before leaving was peanut butter. Peirce said this was about the time the contaminated peanut butter story was breaking. When Laird called family members to check the jars, they discovered two still in the home, both with the 2111 product codes. The Centers for Disease Control was alerting the public that jars of Peter Pan and Wal-Mart's Great Value house brand marked with product code 2111 had been found to contain salmonella. The contaminated batch had been made in May. Peirce said those jars, plus the similar symptoms experienced by Laird and her parents, each of whom ate the peanut butter, have led the family to conclude that salmonella is involved. Wednesday, Peirce said Laird is "on the tail end of her treatment." However, he continued, "the family is upset and wants to know if this caused their mother's death," adding members "don't want people to assume they're looking for money."

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