By Ricardo Alonso Zaldivar, contributions by Akron Beacon Journal's Bill Lilley
WASHINGTON: Federal health authorities on Saturday urged consumers to avoid eating cookies, cakes, ice cream and other foods that contain peanut butter until authorities can learn more about a deadly outbreak of salmonella contamination.
Most peanut butter sold in jars at supermarkets appears to be safe, said Stephen Sundlof, head of the Food and Drug Administration's food safety center.
''As of now, there is no indication that the major national name-brand jars of peanut butter sold in retails stores are linked to the recall,'' Sundlof told reporters in a conference call.
None of the peanut butters or peanut-butter products of Orrville-based J.M. Smucker Co. are involved in the investigation, company spokeswoman Maribeth Badertscher said.
In addition to selling products under its own Smucker's label, the company owns the Jif, Laura Scudder and Adams brands.
Badertscher added that Smucker does not provide peanut butter for products produced by other companies.
Federal officials are focusing on peanut paste, as well as peanut butter, produced at a Blakely, Ga., facility owned by Peanut Corp. of
America. Its peanut butter is not sold directly to consumers but distributed to institutions and food companies. But the peanut paste, made from roasted peanuts, is an ingredient in cookies, cakes and other products that people buy in the supermarket.
So far, more than 470 people have gotten sick in 43 states, including Ohio, and at least 90 had to be hospitalized. At least six deaths are being blamed on the outbreak. Salmonella is a bacterium and the most common source of food poisoning in the United States, causing diarrhea, cramping and fever.
Officials said new illnesses are still being reported in the investigation.
The Kellogg Co., which listed Peanut Corp. as one of its suppliers, has recalled 16 products. They include Austin and Keebler brand Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers, and some snack-size packs of Famous Amos Peanut Butter Cookies and Keebler Soft Batch Homestyle Peanut Butter Cookies. Health officials said shoppers who have bought any of those products should throw them away.
Peanut Corp. has recalled all peanut butter produced at the Georgia plant since Aug. 8 and all peanut paste produced since Sept. 26. The plant passed its last state inspection this summer, but recent tests have found salmonella.
Health officials are focusing on 30 companies out of 85 that received peanut products from the Georgia plant. Sundlof said Peanut Corp. is a relatively small supplier on the national scene.
The outbreak has also triggered a congressional inquiry and renewed calls for reform of food safety laws. For example, the FDA lacks authority to order a recall, and instead must ask companies to voluntarily withdraw products.
''Given the numerous food-borne illness outbreaks over the past several years, it is becoming painfully clear that the current regulatory structure is antiquated and ill-equipped to handle these extensive investigations,'' said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs a panel that oversees the FDA budget.
Seattle-area lawyer William Marler, who specializes in food-safety cases, said the government shouldn't wait for the results of more tests to request recalls.
''At least 30 companies purchased peanut butter or paste from a facility with a documented link to a nationwide salmonella outbreak,'' Marler said. ''The FDA has the authority actually, the mandate to request recalls if the public health is threatened. Instead, the FDA has asked the companies to test their products and consider voluntary recalls. It is just not enough.''
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, although the exact causes of death have not been determined. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the salmonella may have contributed.
An elderly North Carolina man died in November from the same strain of salmonella that's causing the outbreak, officials in that state said Friday.
The CDC said the bacterium 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.