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Salmonella outbreak tracked back to Georgia plant

The recent recall of peanut butter from a processing plant in Georgia should be viewed as an isolated food safety incident, not a ban on all peanut butter, says a University of Georgia expert.

Michael Doyle, director of the UGA Center for Food Safety in Griffin, Ga., said peanut butter has a long record of safety from harmful bacteria like Salmonella.

Peanut not a common vehicle

"It's important to realize this is a highly unusual incident and peanut butter isn't a common vehicle for salmonella," he said. "This is a unique situation which will most likely be linked to the processing plant, not the peanuts. Peanuts are roasted to more than 300 (degrees Fahrenheit), which kills Salmonella."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers on Feb. 14 not to eat jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter with a product code number of 2111 on the jar lids. Both affected brands were manufactured by the ConAgra Foods facility in Sylvester, Ga. Great Value peanut butter manufactured at other facilities is not affected.

As of Feb. 13, 288 cases of foodborne illness in 39 states had been linked to eating varying types of Peter Pan peanut butter, according to the FDA.

Usually found in meat, poultry and eggs

The strain of salmonella involved in this case is Salmonella Tennessee, a bacterium that can cause foodborne illness. Doyle says the strain is named such because it was first identified in Tennessee. There are also Ohio and Michigan strains of salmonella named for isolates identified there, he said.

"There are more than 2,100 different types of Salmonella," Doyle said. "The most common types are Salmonella typhimurium and Salmonella enteritidis. And they're usually linked with meat, poultry and eggs. (Salmonella Tennessee) is not a common cause of human Salmonella infections; it's not in the top 10."

Symptoms of salmonellosis include fever, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and vomiting. Jimmy Taylor of Griffin, Ga., knows the symptoms too well. A tried-and-true peanut butter lover, Taylor opened one of the affected jars Feb. 7.

"I went by with a spoon and got some on Wednesday and then Thursday I had a little more on a Ritz cracker," he said. "By Friday I felt a little bad, and by Saturday night it had lowered the boom on me."

Taylor said by Sunday he was violently ill.

"My wife wanted me to go to the hospital but I was so sick I didn't think I would make it," he said. "I thought I was headed to the other side."

Most cases aren't hospitalized

"About 20 percent of these cases have been hospitalized, and that's pretty high for salmonella outbreaks," Doyle said. "Typically, cases experience mild diarrhea for a few days and maybe some vomiting."

Taylor returned to work Tuesday at "80 percent" of his normal strength.

If you've recently eaten Peter Pan or Great Value brand peanut butter beginning with product code 2111 and have had any of these symptoms, contact your doctor or health care provider as soon as you can. Report your illness to state or local health authorities, too.

ConAgra is recalling all Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter with product code 2111. The FDA reports that the company has destroyed all the potentially affected products it had.

Mail in lid for refund

The ConAgra Web site also advises customers to destroy any jar they have of either brand of 2111-coded peanut butter. Get a full refund by mailing the product lid with your name and mailing address to ConAgra Foods, P.O. Box 57078, Irvine, CA 92619-7078.

If you have questions or concerns about the recall, call the 24-hour toll-free hotline at 866-344-6970.

"You shouldn't be concerned about peanut butter, because this is not a peanut butter issue," Doyle said. "This is nothing like the spinach cases or outbreaks associated with fresh produce. Peanut butter is not a typical vehicle for Salmonella."

(Sharon Dowdy is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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