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Worried consumers toss peanut butter products

Georgia Taylor can’t be certain what made her so sick two weeks ago, but after her favorite peanut butter snack was recalled as part of a national food poisoning scare, she thinks she has a good idea.

“I woke up in the night with vomiting, diarrhea and chills,” recalled Taylor, 63, a retired dietician from Nacogdoches, Texas. She said she ate Austin Quality Foods Toasty Crackers with Peanut Butter.

“When I heard about the salmonella outbreak, I disposed of all the remaining packets.”

Across the country, fans of foods from crackers and cookies to ice cream and energy bars are following suit, hoping to avoid the foodborne illness that has sickened at least 485 people in 43 states and contributed to at least six deaths.

Dozens of peanut butter and peanut paste products, including many produced by well-known brands such as Kellogg’s and Keebler, and sold by retailers such as Kroger Co. and Safeway Inc., are being pulled from store shelves — and consumer cupboards. readers shared their reactions to the outbreak.

Dana Daley, 23, an aspiring graduate student from Long Island, N.Y., said it pains her to contemplate tossing four cases of Keebler Toast & Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers because they might be linked to a Georgia plant where the Typhimurium strain of salmonella was confirmed.

“I don’t have a lot of snacks that I like,” said Daley, who hopes to study nutrition in graduate school. “They’re going to sit here for a while until I’ve desensitized myself.”

Daley didn’t get sick, but many more people beyond the official count may have, said Dr. Forrest W. Smith, the state epidemiologist in Ohio, where 65 cases of the implicated strain — the most in the country — have been detected.

For every single case of salmonella illness reported, there may be 30 actual cases, said Smith, citing figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Salmonella infection must be confirmed through a laboratory analysis.

“It actually may be 30 times or more greater than the 40,000 cases we see each year,” Smith said.

Most cases of salmonella poisoning are caused by improper handling of raw food, such as meat, poultry or eggs, or by transmission from animals such as reptiles or chicks.

Investigation continues

In the case of the current outbreak, health officials have not yet pinpointed a specific cause of the salmonella contamination at the Blakely, Ga., facility owned by Peanut Corp. of America, which distributes peanut butter and peanut paste to commercial firms. Officials said, however, that the bacteria appear to remain dormant in the peanut butter, but once they’re consumed, begin to grow.

Illnesses started on Sept. 8, with most occurring after Oct. 1 and the most recent confirmed case on Jan. 9, according to the CDC. At least 107 people have been hospitalized. Illnesses that occurred after Dec. 20 may not yet be logged because it can take two to three weeks from onset of illness until it’s reported, the agency said.

Health officials in several states contacted Tuesday said they have confirmed no cases or very few cases after about Dec. 25, despite the publicity surrounding the outbreak. That may be because there are few new cases, said Smith, the Ohio epidemiologist. Or it may be because people with salmonella poisoning chalked it up to a winter illness.

Government officials on Jan. 17 advised consumers to avoid eating cookies, cakes, ice cream and other foods containing peanut butter until health officials learned more about the contamination. The FDA has created a searchable list of recalled products on the agency’s Web site. Major brands of jarred peanut butter sold in stores appear to be safe, officials said.

That’s small comfort to Daley, who is dismayed that the U.S. food chain is so vulnerable.

“It’s a matter of making sure that whatever systems are already in place need to be enforced or strengthened,” she said.

The outbreak has sparked a congressional inquiry and renewed calls for food safety reform, which grew strident after another widespread salmonella outbreak linked to fresh peppers last year.

But for consumers such as La’ Kersha Gleaton, 33, a mother of four from Columbia, S.C., the latest example is “the last straw.”

“It was the beef, the chicken, the jalapeno pepper. It’s like you’re afraid to eat anything from the grocery stores,” she said.

Gleaton already frequents farmers markets, but she said the peanut butter problem makes her want to learn to grow food herself.

“It makes you want to go back to the days when people were tending their own plot,” she said. “You have to have the skills to do it yourself.”