January 22, 2009
A South Georgia peanut butter plant is believed to be the sole source of the national outbreak of salmonella that has sickened 486 people and may be linked to six deaths, federal health officials said Wednesday.
“A combination [of testing and studies] have allowed the FDA to confirm that the sources of the outbreak are peanut butter and peanut paste produced by Peanut Corp. of America at its Blakely, Ga., processing plant,” said Stephen Sundlof, director of food safety for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“That is our assumption at this point. We will continue to follow up on any leads that point us in a different direction,” he added.
The PCA plant in Blakely has shut down operations as the investigation continues, even as more product recalls and cases of salmonella emerge, officials said. Recalls have spread into some nutrition bars and dog biscuits.
The company issued a statement Wednesday saying, “PCA continues to work with all regulatory agencies involved in this ongoing, dynamic investigation.”
Dr. Robert Tauxe, a deputy director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said officials found “very powerful evidence” of a link to the Georgia plant. They said the outbreak strain of salmonella was recently found in Connecticut in an unopened container of the plant’s peanut butter.
Officials said it was the same strain of salmonella found in an opened container of peanut butter at a Minnesota nursing home where several people became ill.
Investigators are tracking people who have become ill and interviewing them about what they ate, then checking the genetic fingerprint of the salmonella found in the cases. Officials are also reviewing the distribution records of the South Georgia plant.
The outbreak has struck in 43 states, six Georgians have been sickened by it, and two of them have been hospitalized, officials said. Both have recovered. Officials have said a DeKalb person is among those sickened.
Metro hospitals, stores and schools have been removing peanut butter products from menus, shelves and vending machines.
PCA does not sell its peanut products directly to consumers but in bulk to institutions and numerous distributors and food companies that use it as an ingredient. A total of 125 products have been recalled.
“We’re talking hundreds of thousands of pounds of peanut butter” in the recall, said Oscar Garrison, assistant commissioner in charge of consumer protection for the Georgia Agriculture Department.
The FDA found evidence of salmonella at the Georgia plant, but officials said Wednesday that it was a different strain from that of the outbreak.
“It does indicate there are problems at the plant,” Sund- lof said.
He said major peanut butter brands sold in jars in retail stores have not been linked to the outbreak.
Among the new recalls were Premier Nutrition’s Twisted and Titan brand bars that contain peanut butter and NutriSystem Inc.’s Peanut Butter Granola Bar. Also, Petsmart is recalling seven of its Grreat Choice Dog Biscuit products that contain peanut paste.
Neither of the two licensed bakers affiliated with Girl Scout Cookies, ABC Interbake and Little Brownie Bakers, source their peanut butter from PCA.