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.
The company that sells Little Debbie snacks announced a recall Sunday of peanut butter crackers because of a potential link to the deadly salmonella outbreak.
The announcement by McKee Foods Corp. of Collegedale, Tenn., about two kinds of Little Debbie products was the latest in a string of voluntary recalls following the most recent guidance by health officials.
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.
"This is an excellent illustration of an ingredient-driven outbreak," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, who oversees foodborne illness investigations for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So far, more than 470 people have gotten sick in 43 states, and at least 90 had to be hospitalized. At least six deaths are being blamed on the outbreak. Salmonella is a bacteria and the most common source of food poisoning in the U.S., causing diarrhea, cramping and fever.
Officials said new illnesses are still being reported in the outbreak investigation.
The Kellogg Co., which listed Peanut Corp. as one of its suppliers, has recalled 16 products. They include Austin and Keebler branded 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 consumers 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 a total of 85 that received peanut products from the Georgia plant. Sundlof said Peanut Corp. is a relatively small supplier on the national scene.
The Midwest supermaket chain Hy-Vee Inc. of West Des Moines, Iowa, said Saturday it was voluntarily recalling products made in its bakery departments with peanut butter because they had the potential to be contaminated with salmonella. The recall covered seven states: Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Minnesota.
Perry's Ice Cream Co., based in Akron, N.Y., said it was recalling select ice cream products containing peanut butter because of the PCA investigation. Its recall covered New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia.
The outbreak has 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," said Marler. "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 their exact causes of death have not been determined. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the salmonella may have contributed.
The family of a 72-year-old Minnesota woman who died has said it will pursuing a lawsuit against Peanut Corp. The Minnesota Department of Health said Friday that in all, 35 Minnesota residents had been sickened by exposure to the peanut butter, and 13 of those had been hospitalized.
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 bacteria 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.
For a complete list of recalled products click here.