Five deaths now linked to US salmonella outbreak

WASHINGTON, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Five deaths have now been linked to an outbreak of Salmonella food poisoning linked to peanut butter, but the strain involved is not particularly virulent, U.S. health officials said on Friday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 453 infections had been reported in 43 states and said more cases could be expected. One case was reported in Canada.

“Of these 22 percent are hospitalized and five deaths have been reported that may be associated,” said the CDC’s Dr. Robert Tauxe. He said this was an average rate for Salmonella.

Tauxe and other officials confirmed that the outbreak could be linked to peanut butter and peanut paste from Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), which has voluntarily recalled peanut butter produced in its Blakely, Georgia, processing facility.

They stressed that only institutional peanut butter was involved, not name-brand consumer products, but Kellogg Co K.N said on Wednesday it had put a precautionary hold on Austin and Keebler branded peanut butter snacks.

“Peanut butter is used as an ingredient in many different foods, which makes this investigation complicated,” Tauxe told reporters in a telephone briefing.

“In fact this appears to be an ingredient-driven outbreak.”

The CDC, state health officials and Food and Drug Administration are interviewing patients to see if they can remember eating any particular foods. The officials said about two-thirds of patients remembered having eaten peanut butter, but noted that some foods contain peanut products that may not be obvious.

“We urged companies to check (their records) ... and tell us if the peanuts came from PCA,” the FDA’s Stephen Sundlof said.

Tauxe said Salmonella Typhimurium is a common strain, accounting for about 20 percent of the 40,000 Salmonella cases reported in the United States every year.

“Peanut butter is not a food that supports the growth of bacteria in general,” Tauxe said. This is why it can be stored unrefrigerated.

“Salmonella and other bacteria, if they are introduced into peanut butter ... they are not in any way destroyed,” Tauxe said.

“They don’t continue to grow in the peanut butter but they similarly are not killed in the peanut butter. So they sit there in a dormant state.”

An outbreak of salmonella was linked to Peter Pan brand peanut butter in 2007. ConAgra Foods IncCAG.N closed a Georgia plant after more than 300 people became ill.

Salmonella can cause abdominal cramping, diarrhea and fever and it can kill the very young and the very old.

Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Julie Steenhuysen