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Government, company scientists check Ga. peanut butter plant in salmonella investigation

SYLVESTER, Ga. — Government and company scientists went through one of the nation’s largest peanut butter plants Friday, trying to figure out how salmonella got into batches of the spread.
    Out of the scientists’ way, about 40 workers did maintenance work at the ConAgra Foods plant, spokesman Chris Kircher said. But no jars of peanut butter rolled off the lines at the shuttered plant.
    The plant has been shut down since Wednesday, when federal health officials linked its peanut butter — Peter Pan brand and certain batches of Wal-Mart’s Great Value house brand — to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened almost 300 people nationwide since August. No deaths have been reported.
    The plant employs about 100 people, and other than the local hospital, it is the largest employer in Sylvester, a town of about 5,900 people in south Georgia’s peanut country.
    All workers are getting paid during the shutdown, Kircher said.
    ‘‘We’re working alongside the FDA to investigate this matter and take whatever measures are necessary to get that plant up and running,’’ Kircher said.
    Lois Warren, a cashier at Ed’s Truck Stop, a lunchtime gathering place for area farmers a few miles west of town, said there’s been ‘‘some talk’’ about the salmonella outbreak, but that isn’t stopping people from ordering peanut butter and jelly sandwiches off the menu.
    ‘‘You can still get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but it isn’t Peter Pan,’’ Warren said.
    It was unclear how the dangerous germ that commonly originates from the feces of birds and animals got into the peanut butter.
    Government and industry officials said the contamination may have been caused by dirty jars or equipment. Peanuts are usually heated to high, germ-killing temperatures during the manufacturing process. The only known salmonella outbreak in peanut butter — in Australia during the mid-1990s — was blamed on unsanitary plant conditions.
    ConAgra says none of its previous routine testing of plant equipment and peanut butter has tested positive for salmonella. The Food and Drug Administration last inspected the plant in February 2005 and found no problems, agency spokesman Michael Herndon said.
    At least some the salmonella victims’ peanut butter jars are being tested, but the results are not expected for days.
    The Omaha, Neb.-based food giant said Friday it still had not determined yet how many jars are affected by the recall. The plant is the sole maker of the nationally distributed Peter Pan brand, and the recall covers all peanut butter produced by the plant since May 2006.
    Shoppers are being asked to toss out jars having a product code on the lid beginning with ‘‘2111,’’ which denotes the plant. ConAgra said they can return their lids or full jars of peanut butter to the store where they bought them for a refund.
    Salmonella sickens about 40,000 people a year in the U.S. and kills about 600. It can cause diarrhea, fever, dehydration, abdominal pain and vomiting.
    ———
    To get a refund, consumers should send lids with their names and addresses to ConAgra Foods, P.O. Box 3768, Omaha, NE 68103. For more information, call (866) 344-6970 or visit ConAgra’s Web site at http://www.conagrafoods.com
    ———
    Associated Press Writers Josh Funk in Omaha, Neb., Mike Stobbe in Atlanta and Andrew Bridges in Washington contributed to this report.

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