ConAgra recalls peanut butter

Friday, February 16, 2007

ConAgra Foods Inc. told consumers to discard certain jars of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter after the spread was linked to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened almost 300 people nationwide.

Lids of jars with a product code beginning "2111" can be returned to ConAgra for a refund, the company said.

Grocery stores in the Cape Girardeau area pulled Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter jars from store shelves.

The salmonella outbreak, which federal health officials said Wednesday has sickened 288 people in 39 states since August, was linked to tainted peanut butter produced by ConAgra at a plant in Sylvester, Ga. How salmonella got into peanut butter is still under investigation, said Dr. Mike Lynch, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC officials believe the salmonella outbreak to be the nation's first stemming from peanut butter. The most cases were reported in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee and Missouri.

About 20 percent of all the ill were hospitalized, and there were no deaths, Lynch said. About 85 percent of the infected people said they ate peanut butter, CDC officials said.

ConAgra said it was unsure why the CDC identified peanut butter as the source of the problem. Its own tests of its peanut butter and the plant have been negative, but it shut down the plant so it can investigate, spokesman Chris Kircher said.

"We're trying to understand what else we need to do or should be doing," he said.

Kircher called the recall a precaution. "We want to do what's right by the consumer," he said.

ConAgra officials haven't said how much peanut butter is covered in the recall. The Peter Pan brand is sold in 10 varieties, according to ConAgra's Web site. The Great Value brand, which is also made by other companies, is a Wal-Mart brand.

Wal-Mart announced on its Web site Thursday that it has directed its Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores to remove all containers of Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter carrying the product code identified by ConAgra.

Dennis Marchi, store manager for Schnucks in Cape Girardeau, said store employees removed all the jars of Peter Pan peanut butter after being notified of the possible contamination Wednesday. Shoppers can return any questionable jars of peanut butter to the store, he said.

Officials at Food Giant in Cape Girardeau learned of the problem Thursday morning. "We pulled the jars about 8:30 a.m.," said store manager Mike Recker. Some shoppers who recently had purchased jars of Peter Pan peanut butter returned the jars to the store, Recker said, while other concerned shoppers have telephoned. "We have had a lot of phone calls," he said.

Recker said he can't remember such a widespread recall.

Lyn Stoecker of Cape Girardeau heard the news on the radio. She quickly discovered that she and her family had been eating Great Value peanut butter from a container that carried the "2111" product code.

Stoecker said they had eaten about a third of the peanut butter in the 40-ounce container over the past month. "The good news is that no one is ill," she said.

Stoecker said she isn't worried about the peanut butter that she and her family consumed. But she said she planned to throw away the remainder just as a precaution.

Food service officials in the Cape Girardeau and Jackson school districts said parents and students have nothing to worry about. Neither district uses Peter Pan or Great Value peanut butter in their school cafeterias.

Kircher, the ConAgra spokesman, said the CDC contacted the Food and Drug Administration, which sent investigators to the Georgia plant to review records, collect product samples and conduct tests for salmonella.

Kircher said ConAgra makes peanut butter only at the Sylvester plant, for distribution nationwide.

ConAgra randomly tests 60 to 80 jars of peanut butter that come off the line each day for salmonella and other pathogens, he said.

"We've had no positive hits on that going back for years," Kircher said.

The plant itself is also regularly tested, he said, though he didn't know how often. He said none of those tests have detected salmonella either.

The latest outbreak began in August, with no more than two cases reported each day, CDC officials said. Only in the past few days did investigators hone in on peanut butter as a source, Lynch said.

Other states reporting cases are Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Salmonella infection is known each year to sicken about 40,000 people in the United States, according to the CDC. Salmonellosis, as the infection is known, kills about 600 people annually.

Symptoms can include diarrhea, fever, dehydration, abdominal pain and vomiting.

To get a refund, consumers should send lids and their names and addresses to ConAgra Foods, P.O. Box 57078, Irvine, CA 92619-7078. For more information, call (866) 344-6970.

Staff writer Mark Bliss contributed to this report.

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