MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Three deaths associated with a national salmonella outbreak occurred in Virginia and Minnesota, health officials confirmed Tuesday.
Two adults in Virginia had salmonella when they died, though it's not clear that the illness is what killed them, said Michelle Peregoy, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health. She did not release details about the two people.
Earlier, Minnesota health officials said an elderly woman in that state had the illness at the time of her death.
Health officials are urging nursing homes, hospitals, schools, universities and restaurants to toss out specific containers of peanut butter linked to a salmonella outbreak in 43 states and possibly to the deaths of three people.
The recalled peanut butter — distributed by King Nut Companies of Solon, Ohio — was supplied only through food service providers and was not sold directly to consumers. King Nut challenged the finding, saying it could not be the source of the nationwide outbreak since it distributes to only seven states.
The outbreak has sickened more than 400 people and Minnesota health officials announced Monday they had found a match between samples from a King Nut container and the strains of salmonella bacteria making people sick across the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the outbreak may have contributed to the three deaths.
Minnesota health officials, who are coordinating their investigation with the CDC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other states, said one of the three was a nursing home resident in her 70s who died after contracting the illness. But an epidemiologist with the state Health Department, Stephanie Meyer, said it wasn't clear whether the illness or underlying health problems caused the woman's death.
Minnesota health and agriculture officials said last week they had found salmonella bacteria in a 5-pound package of King Nut peanut butter at a different nursing facility. Officials tested the bacteria over the weekend and found a genetic match with the bacterial strain that has led to 30 illnesses in Minnesota and others across the country.
King Nut Companies on Sunday asked its customers to stop using peanut butter under its King Nut and Parnell's Pride brands with a lot code that begins with the numeral "8."
However, company president and chief executive Martin Kanan argued that King Nut could not be the source of the nationwide salmonella outbreak because the company distributes only to Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, Arizona, Idaho and New Hampshire. No other King Nut products have been voluntarily recalled.
The peanut butter King Nut distributed was manufactured by Peanut Corporation of America, a Virginia company. In an e-mail earlier Monday, President Stewart Parnell said the company was working with federal authorities.
The peanut butter was distributed to establishments such as care facilities, hospitals, schools, universities and restaurants. King Nut says it was not distributed for retail sale to consumers.
The CDC on Monday raised the number of confirmed cases to 410, from 399 as of Friday, and Mississippi became the 43rd state to report a case. All the illnesses began between Sept. 15 and Jan. 7, but most of the people became sick after Oct. 1.
Kanan held out the possibility that the contamination came from another source, since the salmonella was found in an open container.
"That means there's a possibility of cross-contamination, somebody could have been cutting a piece of chicken and then stuck the knife into the peanut butter for a peanut butter sandwich," he said. "There have been no tests that have come back positive on a closed container."
The peanut butter contamination comes almost two years after ConAgra recalled its Peter Pan brand peanut butter, which was eventually linked to at least 625 salmonella cases in 47 states.
CDC officials say the bacteria in the current outbreak has been genetically fingerprinted as the Typhimurium type, which is among the most common sources of salmonella food poisoning.