Kellogg pulls peanut butter crackers as Salmonella probe widens

Jan 15, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – The Kellogg Company yesterday pulled its peanut butter crackers from store shelves as public health officials investigate whether any peanut butter–containing food products are associated with a national Salmonella outbreak that now includes 448 cases in 43 states and may have played a role in five deaths.

Investigators have determined that the source of the outbreak strain, Salmonella enterica serotype Typhimurium, might be bulk peanut butter from the Peanut Corporation of America's (PCA) plant in Blakely, Ga.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said today in an update on the outbreak that investigators are continuing their investigation into exposures to peanut butter and products that contain peanut butter. "Public health officials will advise the public if more products are identified as being associated with the outbreak," the agency said.

Sebastian Cianci, spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), told CIDRAP News today that the agency's investigators have been at the PCA facility, have taken samples for testing at the FDA's lab, and are awaiting the results.

He said that FDA investigators have not definitively linked the outbreak to PCA, and so far an open 5-lb container of peanut butter in Minnesota is the only contaminated product that has been found. "Right now we're still trying to nail down what the products are. Based on early evidence, we're taking a closer look at PCA," Cianci said. He said the fact that the tainted peanut butter container was open leaves the possibility that it was cross-contaminated somehow after it was opened, rather than during production.

PCA has said its peanut butter is only distributed in 17 states, according to a previous CIDRAP News report. King Nut Company, which distributes the PCA-produced peanut butter that was first identified by public health officials in Minnesota as genetically matching the outbreak strain, has said it only distributes its product in seven states.

Kellogg, in a press release yesterday, stopped short of issuing a recall but said it was placing a hold on some of its Keebler and Austin brand crackers as a precautionary measure. The company said it is removing its products from retail sale, placing a hold on the inventory, and asking consumers to avoid eating the products until federal officials clear them.

PCA is one of several peanut paste suppliers that Kellogg said it uses in its Austin and Keebler peanut butter sandwich crackers.

Kellogg said its own investigation has revealed no evidence of concerns about the products and that it has not fielded any complaints about consumer illnesses. The precautionary hold applies to Austin and Keebler toasted peanut butter sandwich crackers, peanut butter and jelly sandwich crackers, cheese and peanut butter sandwich crackers, and peanut butter and chocolate sandwich crackers.

David Mackay, Kellogg's president and chief executive officer, said in the statement yesterday, "Consumer health and safety is our top priority. We are taking these voluntary actions out of an abundance of caution."

Sima Yaron, PhD, a senior lecturer at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, and her colleagues have explored how some Salmonella strains survive the peanut butter pasteurization process and have found that the pathogen may show increased heat resistance in foods that have low water and high lipid content, such as peanut butter and chocolate.

She told CIDRAP News by e-mail that sporadic Salmonella infections from eating contaminated peanut butter probably happen frequently and she's not surprised by news of another outbreak linked to the product. However, Yaron said the large number of cases from so many states is notable, suggesting that the outbreak stemmed from a very large amount of contaminated peanut butter.

See also:

Jan 14 FDA press release

Jan 15 CDC Salmonella outbreak update

Jan 14 CIDRAP News story "Salmonella outbreak prompts another peanut butter recall"

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