Federal officials confirmed salmonella contamination on Friday at a Georgia facility that ships peanut products to 85 food companies.
Capitol Hill, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is conducting its own inquiry into the matter.
Earlier this week, Kellogg pulled some of its Keebler crackers from store shelves as a precaution against the outbreak that has so far sickened hundreds of people in 43 states and killed at least six.
As new cases continue to be reported, Food and Drug Administration officials still aren’t sure of the details behind the outbreak.
Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s food safety center, said while the investigation is ongoing, they don’t yet have the data to provide consumers with specifics about what brands or products to avoid. And while salmonella bacteria was confirmed at the Georgia plant, more tests are needed to see if it matches the strain that has sickened hundreds.
Investigators first focused on bulk peanut butter shipped to nursing homes and institutional cafeterias but have since broadened the investigation.
They’re now looking at peanut butter, baked goods and other products that contain peanuts and are sold directly to consumers. As many as one-third of the people who got sick did not recall eating peanut butter, health officials reported.
Dr. Robert Tauxe, director of the foodborne illness division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the focus is on peanut butter and a wide array of products that might have peanut butter in them.
Peanut paste, which is essentially ground up peanuts, and peanut butter produced at a Blakely, Ga., facility owned by Peanut Corp. of America, are currently under investigation. The peanut paste concern is significant due to its use in dozens of products, from baked goods to cooking sauces.
Donna Rosenbaum, head of the consumer group STOP (Safe Tables Our Priority), said there could be a very broad range of peanut-based products involved. “We don’t know exactly what comes out of this plant. They really don’t have their arms around all that.”
Federal officials said they are focusing on 32 of the 85 companies that Peanut Corp. supplies because of the time period in which they received shipments of peanut butter or paste. The companies are being urged to test their products, or pull them from the shelves as Kellogg did.
One peanut grower is under investigation as well, as it is possible that contamination could have occurred before peanuts reached the processing plant, which passed its last inspection by the Georgia agriculture department this summer.
Twenty-one lots of peanut butter made at the Peanut Corp. plant since July 1 were recalled due to possible salmonella contamination.
On Friday, the company expanded its voluntary recall to include all peanut butter produced at the Georgia plant since Aug. 8 and all peanut paste produced since Sept. 26. The company, which suspended peanut butter processing at the facility, said none of its peanut butter is sold directly to consumers, but is distributed to institutions, food service industries and private label food companies.
Peanut Corp. CEO Stewart Parnell said in a statement: “We deeply regret that this product recall is expanding and our first priority is to protect the health of our customers.
“Based upon today’s news, we will not wait for confirmation of the DNA strains and plan to recall all of the affected products produced during the time period.”
The plant will be closed immediately for the investigation, Parnell added.
Even though no illnesses have yet been reported, Kellogg Co., which gets some peanut paste from the Blakely facility, asked stores late Wednesday to stop selling some of its Keebler and Austin peanut butter sandwich crackers.
Peanut Corp. said it is cooperating with federal and state authorities. On Friday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote the company requesting inspection and internal records dating back four years.
Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, said peanut butter is not supposed to be a risky food. “What went wrong? And what does this mean about foods that are considered high-risk, such as raw vegetables?”
Salmonella does not thrive in peanut butter, but can remain dormant, according to Sundlof.
“Then, when somebody eats the contaminated peanut butter, the bacteria begin to multiply. That is apparently what happened in this case,” he said.
State health officials announced on Friday that a sixth death has been linked to the outbreak, which has sickened more than 450 people in 43 states.
North Carolina health officials said on Friday that an elderly North Carolina man died in November from the same strain of salmonella that’s causing the outbreak. Dr. Zack Moore, an epidemiologist with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said tests taken the day before he died indicated the infection had overrun his digestive system and spread to his bloodstream.
Two deaths in Minnesota and Virginia have been linked to the outbreak and Idaho has reported another, Health officials said. Four of those five were elderly people, and all had salmonella when they died, though their exact causes of death haven’t been determined. But the CDC said the salmonella might have contributed.
Typhimurium, the bacteria behind the outbreak, is common and not an unusually dangerous strain, however the elderly or those with weakened immune systems are more at risk.
Peanut butter has seen two salmonella outbreaks in the last two years. Salmonella is the nation’s leading cause of food poisoning; common symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps.
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