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FDA Widens Peanut Butter-Salmonella Probe

FRIDAY, Jan. 16 -- U.S. health officials said Friday that they were expanding their investigation into peanut products possibly contaminated with salmonella, as the toll from the outbreak climbed to 452 people sickened in 43 states and one in Canada, and possibly six deaths. U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials have asked food companies around the country that may have bought peanut butter or peanut paste from a Georgia facility owned by the Peanut Corp. of America to test their products for salmonella contamination. The Associated Press reported that federal health officials late Friday said at least 85 companies had purchased peanut products from the Georgia plant and 30 had been "urged" to run their own tests for the bacteria. Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told a late afternoon teleconference: "We have traced one likely source of salmonella contamination to a plant owned by the Peanut Corp. of America in Georgia, which makes both a brand of peanut butter distributed in bulk to large institutions like nursing homes, and also produces a peanut paste that is distributed to food manufacturers to be used as an ingredient in many products, including cookies, crackers, cereal and ice cream." Although salmonella was found at the plant, it's not yet known whether it's the same strain behind the outbreak, Sundlof said, adding that testing continues. Sundlof said the FDA doesn't know all the peanut butter brands or foods containing peanut butter that might be affected. "We don't have specific information about what brands or products consumers should avoid," he said. He added, however, that popular brands of peanut butter found on store shelves don't seem to be affected. But AP, quoting consumer representatives who took part in an earlier-Friday conference call with federal officials, said companies producing products with peanut butter were being asked to consider halting sales. The concern is that peanut paste is used in dozens of products, from baked goods to cooking sauces. Initially, federal and state investigators had focused on bulk containers of peanut butter sold to institutions such as nursing homes, but not to supermarkets, the AP said. "Now it turns out, it's not just institutions," said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union. On Wednesday, cereal giant Kellogg asked stores to stop selling its popular Keebler and Austin brand peanut butter crackers. Kellogg, of Battle Creek, Mich., said it hadn't received any complaints or discovered any problems with the crackers, but took the action as a "precautionary measure" after Peanut Corp., one of its suppliers, announced a nationwide recall of peanut butter made at the Georgia plant. The crackers are Toasted Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers, Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich Crackers, Cheese and Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers, and Peanut Butter-Chocolate Sandwich Crackers. The strain of salmonella involved with the outbreak has been identified as Salmonella Typhimurium, the most common of the more than 2,500 types of salmonella bacteria in the United States. It's often found in uncooked eggs and meats, officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The most recent death linked to the outbreak was an elderly man in North Carolina, according to state health officials. On Wednesday, health officials in Minnesota and Idaho said that one death in each state had been linked to the outbreak. Another death in Minnesota and two in Virginia were confirmed Tuesday, the AP reported. Although the causes of death haven't been determined, all six adults had salmonella infection when they died. CDC officials said the salmonella outbreak may have contributed to their deaths. Peanut Corp., based in Lynchburg, Va., issued its own recall Tuesday of 21 lots of peanut butter for possible salmonella contamination. The product was made at the plant in Blakely, Ga., on or after July 1, 2008, and sold under the brand name Parnell's Pride and by the King Nut Company as King Nut, the AP said. Peanut Corp., which also has plants in Virginia and Texas, makes the product for bulk distribution to institutions, food service industries and private label food companies. The recall and the potential link to the multi-state outbreak came two years after ConAgra recalled its Peter Pan brand peanut butter, which had been linked to at least 625 salmonella cases in 47 states. More information To learn more about salmonella, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/typh0109/010809.html .
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