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Georgia's Paula Deen targeted by protesters in union dispute

SAVANNAH - Celebrity cook Paula Deen's promotion of supermarket hams brought some heat outside her Savannah kitchen Monday from about 40 protesters supporting a labor union.

After months spent dogging the drawling, butter-loving Food Network hostess at book signings and paid appearances from Charlotte, N.C., to Portland, Ore., the United Food and Commercial Workers union staged a rally Monday outside Deen's restaurant in her home city of Savannah.

The union has targeted Deen, 60, because of her endorsement deal with Smithfield Foods Inc., the Virginia-based owner of the world's largest pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C. The union has fought with the company for more than a decade in attempts to unionize plant workers.

Union organizers want Deen to meet with workers at the Tar Heel plant and take their concerns about wages and poor working conditions to Smithfield executives. They also want her to stop endorsing Smithfield products if the company refuses to make changes.

'Paula, Paula, meet with the workers!' the yellow-shirted demonstrators chanted Monday evening from three street corners surrounding the entrance to Deen's restaurant, The Lady & Sons. Few customers inside bothered to look up from plates of fried chicken and sweet potatoes.

Deen, just home from a tour promoting her book 'Christmas With Paula Deen,' told The Associated Press earlier Monday she has no plans to intervene.

'I feel that I'm being dragged into something that I'm certainly no expert at,' Deen said during an interview at a hotel a mile from her downtown restaurant, where union organizers handed out leaflets to passers-by outside during the noon lunch rush.

Union organizers have popped up at Deen's appearances across the nation since April. She said they turned up at six of the eight cities on her book tour since Thanksgiving.

At a Washington book signing, she said, a woman used a mentally disabled child to get Deen's attention and then started pressing to support Smithfield's Tar Heel workers. In Seattle, union organizers dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus to get into one of her live cooking shows.

'Coming to me to settle union problems is, I think, the wrong way to go, because I'm a mother and I'm a grandmother and I'm a cook,' Deen said. 'I wouldn't begin to know how to solve those kinds of issues.'