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Tracing the Salmonella Outbreak continued...

The most damning evidence against the PCA plant comes from Connecticut, where on Jan. 19 an unopened jar of King Nut peanut butter -- a brand sold only to institutions -- was found to contain the same Salmonella Typhimurium bacteria isolated from sick people at that institution.

King Nut gets its peanut butter directly from PCA. Earlier, the same strain of salmonella was found in an opened jar of King Nut peanut butter in Minnesota.

The second piece of evidence against PCA's Blakely plant comes from the FDA's ongoing investigation of the plant, which has been shut down. FDA detectives isolated salmonella in two places inside the plant.

While the salmonella found in the plant is different from the outbreak strain, it shows the plant did not operate under safe manufacturing procedures, says Stephen Sundlof, DVM, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Sundlof had strong words for the food manufacturing industry.

"The food industry is responsible for assuring their products are safe. They are required to follow good manufacturing practices," he says. "When something like this happens, it represents a failure of the industry -- or here, an individual in the industry -- not living up to what is expected from them from a legal and moral standpoint. And that is to make sure their products are not harmful to the public."

Salmonella in Peanut Butter

How can intensely processed foods contain living bacteria?

Sudlof says roasting of peanuts, if done correctly, is supposed to kill any salmonella that might be in the product. Either this did not happen at the Blakely plant, or the peanut products were contaminated after the roasting stage of the manufacturing process.

Heating to a proper temperature kills salmonella, but only if the bacteria are in a moist place. When in a product relatively free of water, such as peanut butter or peanut paste, the bacteria can survive heating, says Robert Tauxe, MD, MPH, deputy director of the CDC's Division of Foodborne, Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases.

"When salmonella is in something dry, it can survive much more heat than when it is in something wet. It is a curious phenomenon of the organism," Tauxe says.

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