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Although PCA is a small company, it lists more than 70 food companies as its customers. "Peanut paste is used in a huge variety of other foods," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, who is directing the investigation for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A noted food safety scientist said manufacturers have to be careful that peanuts don't get contaminated after roasting. That's partly because peanut butter itself can't be heated to kill the bacteria without making it unpalatable to eat.
"Once the salmonella gets into the peanut butter, you are not going to kill it," said Michael Doyle, head of the University of Georgia's food safety center. "What the processor has to rely on is the roasting process. That's a critical control point."
After roasting, peanuts can be contaminated if they somehow come into contact with tainted water, or if birds or rodents get into the plant. They can also be cross-contaminated by equipment that is used to handle raw ingredients. Raw peanuts can harbor salmonella, just like other agricultural products.
"If there are fork lifts in the raw ingredient area, they can't go into the other part of the plant, because they could be bringing in untreated material," Doyle said. Federal and state officials would not discuss details of the investigation at the Georgia plant.
The FDA's Sundlof said it's rare for dogs to get salmonella illness, but that their owners can pick up the bacteria by handling tainted biscuits. If people don't wash their hands after feeding the dog, they can transfer the bacteria to human foods.
On the Net:
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