Is Peanut Butter Safe?

updated 02/09/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/09/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

Since September '08 the deaths of seven people, primarily seniors in nursing homes, have been blamed on salmonella-tainted peanut butter. The scare widened as nearly 500 more in 43 states fell ill, and companies from Kellogg to ClifBar pulled from shelves items that contain peanut products sourced from a single processing plant in Georgia. Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, discusses the recall with PEOPLE's Joanne Fowler.

How did you locate the problem?
Last fall the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] started picking up strains of salmonella that all had the same genetic fingerprint. The CDC asked victims what they ate, and in January we narrowed it down to peanut butter. There was an outbreak in a Minnesota nursing home, so the state health department cultured the salmonella, and we traced it back to the Blakely, Ga., Peanut Corp. of America, where the peanut butter was being produced.

How did salmonella end up in the food?
Most likely due to contamination on the equipment. We found salmonella in the plant, an indication that their systems were not under control.

What are symptoms of salmonellosis?
Fever, diarrhea, vomiting, achiness. It's not a one-day problem; it generally lasts two to seven days—in this case, about 22 percent of people were hospitalized. Most people recover through treatment with antibiotics, but children, elderly or people on immune-suppressing drugs are in danger.

What if I've eaten contaminated food?
If you have symptoms, see your doctor. Salmonella can be severe. It's not something to take chances with.

What should consumers do?
We don't want everybody to throw away a perfectly good jar of peanut butter. Check our Web site's recall list [www.fda.gov]. If you find products listed, dispose of them. If you can't find a product on the list and can't obtain information from the manufacturer, we advise not eating that product.

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