February 14, 2007 / 8:32 PM / 13 years ago

Officials check for salmonella in peanut butter

CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. health officials said on Wednesday they are investigating a possible link between peanut butter and more than 100 salmonella cases in 37 states.

ConAgra Foods Inc., the maker of Peter Pan brand peanut butter, has been contacted by the Food and Drug Administration, ConAgra spokesman Chris Kircher said, adding that the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were looking at the possibility that peanut butter was the cause of the salmonella cases. Other companies have also been contacted.

“We’re not clear yet what brands are involved, but we are talking with them to better understand the information that they have at this time,” Kircher said.

A CDC spokeswoman confirmed that the agency was checking into a possible link.

Peanut butter appears to be the cause of the cases, said Dr. Timothy Jones, deputy state epidemiologist for the Tennessee Department of Health.

Tennessee has had about 20 cases of salmonella that may be related to peanut butter, Jones said, adding that in all there were cases in at least 37 states dating as far back as October. He could not say how many total cases were being investigated, but a health expert said more than 100 cases were involved.

Salmonella are a family of bacteria that can cause diarrhea, fever and stomach pain in people. The CDC reports 40,000 cases a year in the United States, and 600 deaths.

“Salmonella infections usually resolve in 5 to 7 days and often do not require treatment unless the patient becomes severely dehydrated or the infection spreads from the intestines,” the CDC says on its web site, at http://www.cdc.gov.

The salmonella being investigated is a strain known as Salmonella tennessee, Jones said. Health officials have found “two sets of DNA fingerprint patterns that appear to be related, but not identical” in samples from patients.

But, he added, investigators have not been able to grow the salmonella in any brand of peanut butter.

ConAgra’s Kircher said the company randomly tests a jar of peanut butter in each production line each hour and has found no traces of salmonella since at least 2004.

“We’re trying to understand what they’ve found, what peanut butters are involved and what if any actions are necessary to take at this point,” he said.

A spokeswoman from J.M. Smucker Co., maker of Jif peanut butter, said authorities were not investigating the company’s peanut butters, which include the Jif and Smucker’s brands.

A spokesperson for Unilever NV, which makes Skippy peanut butter, could not be reached for comment.

ConAgra shares were down 12 cents at $25.85 and Smucker was up 9 cents at $48.68 on the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday afternoon. Unilever closed up 1.4 percent in London.

Additional reporting by Maggie Fox in Washington, D.C.

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