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Peanut Butter Probe Expands; Takes On New Urgency

WASHINGTON (AP) - The latest national food safety investigation
took on new urgency Friday as federal officials confirmed
salmonella contamination at a Georgia facility that ships peanut
products to 85 food companies.

On Capitol Hill, the House Energy and Commerce Committee
requested records as it opened its own inquiry.

The outbreak has sickened hundreds of people in 43 states and
killed at least six. Earlier this week, it prompted Kellogg to pull
some of its venerable Keebler crackers from store shelves, as a
precaution.

Although the investigation has gone into high gear, Food and
Drug Administration officials say much of their information remains
sketchy. And new cases are still being reported.

"This is a very active investigation, but we don't yet have the
data to provide consumers with specifics about what brands or
products they should avoid," said Stephen Sundlof, director of the
FDA's food safety center. Although salmonella bacteria has been
found at the Georgia plant, for example, more tests are needed to
see if it matches the strain that has gotten people sick.

But clearly, what began as an investigation of bulk peanut
butter shipped to nursing homes and institutional cafeterias is now
much broader.

It includes not just peanut butter, but baked goods and other
products that contain peanuts and are sold directly to consumers.
Health officials say as many as one-third of the people who got
sick did not recall eating peanut butter.

"The focus is on peanut butter and a wide array of products
that might have peanut butter in them," said Dr. Robert Tauxe,
director of the foodborne illness division at the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention.

Officials said they are focusing on peanut paste, as well as
peanut butter, produced at a Blakely, Ga., facility owned by Peanut
Corp. of America. The concern about peanut paste is significant
because it can be used in dozens of products, from baked goods to
cooking sauces.

"It could be a very broad range of peanut-based products
here," said Donna Rosenbaum, head of STOP, Safe Tables Our
Priority, a consumer group. "We don't know exactly what comes out
of this plant. They really don't have their arms around all that."

Federal officials said they are focusing on 32 of the 85
companies that Peanut Corp. supplies, because of the time period in
which they received shipments of peanut butter or paste. The
companies are being urged to test their products, or pull them from
the shelves as Kellogg did.

The government is also scrutinizing a grower, raising the
possibility that contamination could have occurred before peanuts
reached the processing plant, which passed its last inspection by
the Georgia agriculture this summer.

Peanut Corp. has recalled 21 lots of peanut butter made at the
plant since July 1 because of possible salmonella contamination.
The company, which suspended peanut butter processing at the
facility, said none of its peanut butter is sold directly to
consumers, but is distributed to institutions, food service
industries and private label food companies.

But Kellogg Co., which gets some peanut paste from the Blakely
facility, asked stores late Wednesday to stop selling some of its
Keebler and Austin peanut butter sandwich crackers. The company
said it hasn't received any reports of illnesses.

Peanut Corp. said it is cooperating with federal and state
authorities. On Friday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee
wrote the company requesting inspection and internal records dating
back four years.

"Peanut butter is not supposed to be a risky food," said Patty
Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch. "What went
wrong? And what does this mean about foods that are considered
high-risk, such as raw vegetables?"

Sundlof said salmonella does not thrive in peanut butter, but
can remain dormant. Then, when somebody eats the contaminated
peanut butter, the bacteria begin to multiply. "That is apparently
what happened in this case," he said.

Meanwhile, state health officials on Friday announced that a
sixth death has been linked to the outbreak which has sickened more
than 450 people in 43 states.

An elderly North Carolina man died in November from the same
strain of salmonella that's causing the outbreak, North Carolina
health officials said Friday. Tests taken the day before he died
indicated the infection had overrun his digestive system and spread
to his bloodstream, said Dr. Zack Moore, an epidemiologist with the
North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Health officials in Minnesota and Virginia have linked two
deaths each to the outbreak and Idaho has reported one. Four of
those five were elderly people, and all had salmonella when they
died, though their exact causes of death haven't been determined.
But the CDC said the salmonella may have contributed. The CDC said the bacteria behind the outbreak - typhimurium - is
common and not an unusually dangerous strain but that the elderly
or those with weakened immune systems are more at risk. The
salmonella outbreak is the second in two years involving peanut
butter. Salmonella is the nation's leading cause of food poisoning;
common symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps.
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On the Net:
FDA: http://tinyurl.com/8srctw
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Kate Brumback reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writers
Mike Stobbe in Atlanta and Lauran Neergard in Washington also
contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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