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Salmonella outbreak still a sticky mystery

All Peter Pan peanut butter bought since May 2006 should be discarded, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on Friday in a statement broadening its warning about salmonella-contaminated peanut butter.
The Peter Pan and Great Value brands of peanut butter produced by ConAgra are currently suspected in the nationwide salmonella outbreak.
The Peter Pan and Great Value brands of peanut butter produced by ConAgra are currently suspected in the nationwide salmonella outbreak.Dr. Scott M. Lieberman / AP
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

All Peter Pan peanut butter bought since May 2006 should be discarded, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on Friday in a statement broadening its warning about salmonella-contaminated peanut butter.

More than 290 people from 39 states have become ill in the food poisoning outbreak since August, and 46 have been hospitalized, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

As government scientists struggled to pinpoint the source of a salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter, the first lawsuits were filed against ConAgra Foods Inc. on Friday.

Federal health investigators said they strongly suspect Peter Pan peanut butter and certain batches of Wal-Mart’s Great Value house brand — both manufactured by ConAgra. No deaths have been reported.

The first lawsuit was filed in federal court in Kansas City, Mo., by Susanna and Brian Cox of St. Joseph. It claims that Susanna Cox and the couple’s two children became ill in October after eating Great Value Peanut Butter. The two children required urgent medical treatment, according to the lawsuit.

Seattle-based attorney William Marler, whose firm handles many cases of food-borne illness, also filed another lawsuit in federal court in Rochester, N.Y., on behalf of a New York couple and their child. The lawsuit said the father and 2-year-old son became severely ill over the last week after eating sandwiches with Peter Pan peanut butter.

A Texas couple also filed a lawsuit Friday against ConAgra in Texas, saying their 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son got sick after eating Peter Pan peanut butter.

The lawsuit seeks damages for medical bills, pain and suffering, and caps the damages at $75,000 for each child, their lawyer said.

The other two lawsuits sought unspecified damages.

Salmonella's possible link to tainted peanut butter became known Wednesday when Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra and the Food and Drug Administration announced a product recall.

Shoppers across the country were warned to throw out jars with a product code on the lid beginning with “2111,” which denotes the plant where it was made.

How the dangerous germ got into the peanut butter remains a mystery. But because peanuts are usually heated to high germ-killing temperatures during the manufacturing process, government and industry officials said the contamination may have been caused by dirty jars or equipment.

Marler said Friday that 500 people had contacted his law firm this week. He said he plans to file additional cases in the next few days and then move to consolidate them.

Salmonella sickens about 40,000 people a year in the U.S. and kills about 600. It can cause diarrhea, fever, dehydration, abdominal pain and vomiting. The only known salmonella outbreak in peanut butter — in Australia during the mid-1990s — was blamed on unsanitary plant conditions.