Some peanut butter at a Georgia plant shows signs of contamination, but officials said Thursday they don't know if it's linked to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds and prompted Kellogg to pull crackers from store shelves.
Samples of the microbes found at the Peanut Corp. of America plant in Blakely will be tested for salmonella, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said. If it proves to be the food-borne bacteria, further tests would determine whether it is the same strain that has sickened more than 450 people in 43 states and may have contributed to five deaths.
"We do not have a positive confirmation for salmonella," Irvin said in a statement. "However, results of two tests completed so far mean that we cannot eliminate salmonella as a possibility."
Peanut Corp. has recalled 21 lots of peanut butter made at the plant since July 1 because of possible salmonella contamination. Peanut Corp. said in a news release Thursday that it has also temporarily suspended peanut butter processing at the Blakely plant but work on other products there was continuing.
Kellogg Co., which gets some of its peanut paste from the company, asked stores late Wednesday to stop selling some of its peanut butter sandwich crackers until the company can ensure the paste is OK for people to eat.
FDA compliance officer Sandra Williams said Kellogg's move is known as a stop-sale order and isn't as serious as a recall. The company, based in Battle Creek, Mich., said it hasn't found problems or received complaints about the products.
"We are taking these voluntary actions out of an abundance of caution," Kellogg CEO David Mackay said in a news release.
The products being removed include Austin and Keebler toasted peanut butter sandwich crackers, peanut butter and jelly sandwich crackers, cheese and peanut butter sandwich crackers, and peanut butter-chocolate sandwich crackers.
Peanut Corp. has said none of its recalled peanut butter is sold through retail stores, but is distributed to institutions, food service industries and private label food companies. It is sold under the brand name Parnell's Pride and by the King Nut Co. as King Nut.
Peanut Corp. said in a release that it was working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "to identify customers and recall the product as part of this ongoing investigation." But the company declined interviews.
Elderly at risk
Health officials in Minnesota and Virginia have linked two deaths each to the outbreak and Idaho has reported one. Four of the 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 family of a 72-year-old Minnesota woman who died says it is pursuing a lawsuit against Peanut Corp. but hasn't yet filed it.
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.
"Those are the ones likely to have the worst time," said Dr. Robert Tauxe from the CDC.
Salmonella is the nation's leading cause of food poisoning, with common symptoms being diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. About 40,000 cases are reported each year, although more than 1 million people are likely infected and about 500 deaths a year are salmonella-related, health officials said.
Nationally, all the latest illnesses began between Sept. 3 and Dec. 29, but most were sickened after Oct. 1.
This peanut butter contamination comes almost two years after ConAgra recalled its Peter Pan brand, which was eventually linked to at least 625 salmonella cases in 47 states.