WASHINGTON (AP) - The government is expanding its investigation of peanut products in a salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds and killed at least six, consumer groups briefed on the matter said Friday.
The Food and Drug Administration is notifying some 30 companies that bought peanut butter or peanut paste from a Georgia facility to test their products, said representatives of Consumers Union and Food & Water Watch.
Companies around the country are also being asked to consider halting sales, said the consumer representatives, who took part in a conference call with federal officials Friday.
The concern about peanut paste is significant because it can be used in dozens of products, from baked goods to cooking sauces. At first, the state and federal investigation focused on bulk containers of peanut butter sold to institutions like nursing homes, and not found on supermarket shelves.
"Now it turns out it's not just institutions," said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union.
The investigation is focusing on a processing in Blakely, Ga., owned by Peanut Corp. of America. State officials say the facility shows signs of contamination, but no definitive link has been made to salmonella, and tests are continuing. The plant passed its last inspection by the state agriculture department this summer.
Peanut Corp. has recalled 21 lots of peanut butter made at the plant since July 1 because of possible salmonella contamination. The company, which suspended peanut butter processing at the facility, said none of its peanut butter is sold directly to consumers, but is distributed to institutions, food service industries and private label food companies.
But Kellogg Co., which gets some peanut paste from the Blakely facility, asked stores late Wednesday to stop selling some of its Keebler and Austin peanut butter sandwich crackers. The company said it hasn't received any reports of illnesses.
Peanut Corp. said it is working with federal authorities.
"Peanut butter is not supposed to be a risky food," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch. "What went wrong? And what does this mean about foods that are considered high-risk, such as raw vegetables?"
Meanwhile, health officials on Friday announced that a sixth death has been linked to the outbreak which has sickened more than 450 people in 43 states.
An elderly North Carolina man died in November from the same strain of salmonella that's causing the outbreak, North Carolina health officials said Friday. Tests taken the day before he died indicated the infection had overrun his digestive system and spread to his bloodstream, said Dr. Zack Moore, an epidemiologist with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
Health officials in Minnesota and Virginia have linked two deaths each to the outbreak and Idaho has reported one. Four of those five were elderly people, and all had salmonella when they died, though their exact causes of death haven't been determined. But the CDC said the salmonella may have contributed.
The family of a 72-year-old Minnesota woman who died says it is pursuing a lawsuit against Peanut Corp. but hasn't yet filed it.
The CDC said the bacteria behind the outbreak-typhimurium-is common and not an unusually dangerous strain but that the elderly or those with weakened immune systems are more at risk.
Kate Brumback reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Mike Stobbe in Atlanta also contributed to this report.