WASHINGTON — What began as an investigation of peanut butter shipped to U.S. nursing homes and cafeterias has broadened with the Kellogg Co. recalling 16 products and federal officials confirming salmonella contamination at a Georgia facility that ships peanut products to 85 food companies.
A nationwide salmonella outbreak has sickened hundreds of people in 43 U.S. states and killed at least six.
Late Friday, Kellogg said in a statement it was recalling its Keebler crackers and other products voluntarily in light of problems discovered in Georgia.
"The actions we are taking today are in keeping with our more than 100-year commitment to providing consumers with safe, high-quality products," said David Mackay, Kellogg's president and CEO.
The recall includes Austin and Keebler branded Peanut Butter Sandwich Crackers, as well as some snack-size packs of Famous Amos Peanut Butter Cookies and Keebler Soft Batch Homestyle Peanut Butter Cookies.
Sandra Williams, a compliance officer with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Detroit, advised consumers not to eat the products and to contact a doctor if they have any symptoms.
Salmonella is the nation's leading cause of food poisoning; common symptoms include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. The current outbreak is the second in two years involving peanut butter.
"Kellogg reacted promptly to this potential public health risk after receiving notification of the potential problem from their supplier," Williams said.
In Washington D.C., the House Energy and Commerce Committee requested records as it opened its own inquiry.
FDA officials say, however, that much of their information remains sketchy. And new cases are still being reported.
"This is a very active investigation, but we don't yet have the data to provide consumers with specifics about what brands or products they should avoid," said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's food safety center. Although salmonella bacteria has been found at the Georgia plant, for example, more tests are needed to see if it matches the strain that has made people sick.
Federal officials said the investigation is focusing on peanut paste and peanut butter produced at a Blakely, Georgia, facility owned by Peanut Corp. of America. Peanut paste is used in dozens of products, from baked goods to cooking sauces.
Health officials say as many as one-third of the people who got sick did not recall eating peanut butter.
"The focus is on peanut butter and a wide array of products that might have peanut butter in them," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, director of the foodborne illness division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The government is also scrutinizing a grower, raising the possibility that contamination could have occurred before peanuts reached the processing plant, which passed its last inspection by the Georgia agriculture this summer.
Peanut Corp. said it was cooperating with federal and state authorities. It has recalled 21 lots of peanut butter made at the plant since July 1 and distributed to institutions, food service industries and private label food companies. The company also suspended peanut butter processing at the facility.
The U.S.. House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote the company Friday requesting inspection and internal records dating back four years.
Health officials in Minnesota and Virginia have linked two deaths each to the outbreak and Idaho and North Carolina have reported one. Four of those five were elderly people, and all had salmonella when they died, though their exact causes of death have not been determined. But the U.S. Center for Disease Control said the salmonella may have contributed.
The CDC said the bacteria behind the outbreak — typhimurium — is common and not an unusually dangerous strain, but the elderly or those with weakened immune systems are more at risk.
Kellogg is based in Battle Creek, Michigan.
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Associated Press writers Kate Brumback and Mike Stobbe in Atlanta and Lauran Neergaard and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar in Washington also contributed to this report.