updated 3/10/2009 7:01:44 PM ET 2009-03-10T23:01:44

The nation's consumers, worried about the widespread salmonella outbreak, continued to shy away from peanut butter in a recent four-week period, according to new sales numbers.

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Americans bought 41.8 million pounds of jarred peanut butter in the four-week period ending Feb. 21 — 13.3 percent less than in the same period the previous year, research firm Nielsen reported Tuesday.

The period's sales were the lowest of any in the three years Nielsen has tracked the U.S. food, drug, and mass merchandisers segment, which includes Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer.

The total retail value of jarred peanut butter sales in the period fell 2.3 percent to $87.2 million, from nearly $89.3 million in the same period last year.

The decline came as news continued to arise in this winter's salmonella outbreak tied to peanut butter and peanut butter paste from Peanut Corp. of America. The outbreak has sickened hundreds and may be involved in nine deaths.

In one of the largest recalls in U.S. history, companies have recalled more than 2,100 products containing Peanut Corp.'s paste, from ice cream to dog food.

Although jarred peanut butter largely escaped the recall, consumers have cut spending on the staple.

The reluctance to buy peanut butter is hurting manufacturers like J.M Smucker Co., the nation's largest jams and jellies maker and maker of the Jif peanut butter brand.

Executives said last month that they were seeing weakness in Jif sales because of the outbreak, even though Jif was not affected. The company ran ads in more than 100 papers and aired national consumers saying the Jif brand is safe.

"We believe these messages are starting to reach the consumers but it will take some time for the category to return to a more normal pattern," Chairman and Co-Chief Executive Richard Smucker told investors on a conference call last month.

Todd Hale, senior vice president for consumer and shopper insights at Nielsen, agreed.

"The coverage the outbreak received has caused consumers to exercise an abundance of caution with respect to buying this product," Hale said in a statement Tuesday. "The fact is that these brands are safe and should benefit once consumers recognize that the safety of these and most jarred peanut butters were not in question."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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