Possible Salmonella Deaths Rise to 11

Ohio claims to have passed California as state with most documented cases.

ByBrian Hartman, Gigi Stone and Michael S. James
January 24, 2009, 12:26 PM

Jan. 24, 2008 — -- The number of deaths possibly linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak has risen to 11, with officials reporting new fatalities in Minnesota and Ohio.

In Minnesota, a long-term care facility patient in her 80s may have died because of the salmonella outbreak, which has been blamed on contaminated peanut butter found in a wide array of food products, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In Ohio, four additional deaths may be linked to the outbreak, which now has hit Ohio harder -- in terms of number of cases and deaths -- than any other state, officials said.

"Ohio has now surpassed California as the leading state, with 67 reported cases throughout 26 counties," the Ohio Department of Health said on its Web site. "Among the 67 cases there have been four reported fatalities. However, in only one of these fatalities salmonella has been listed on the death certificate as 'other significant condition contributing to death, but not the immediate or underlying cause.'"

Nearly 500 people in 43 states have been sickened possibly because of the salmonella outbreak, the CDC said.

Besides the five new deaths, six prior deaths have been reported by state health departments as being possibly linked to salmonella -- two in Virginia, one in North Carolina, one in Idaho and two additional cases in Minnesota.

More than 70 companies have used peanut butter and peanut paste from the Peanut Corporation of America's processing plant in Blakely, Ga., which is believed to be the source of the salmonella outbreak.

With more than 125 products already recalled, government investigators are scrambling to determine just how widespread the contamination might be.

"Even a small amount of material can find its way into a number of different food products," said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, the director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "That's just the nature of the food business. It makes our jobs much more complicated."

As they battle against the salmonella outbreak, federal officials are working with state health officials, who are their eyes and ears, to tell them what's happening. When the reports come in of someone who is sick, state and federal investigators interview those people, try to learn whatever they can about what they may have eaten and then try to determine whether or not any of the details have any tie to the rest of the salmonella cases.

But as the suspected death and illness toll rises further, some are more loudly questioning the government's approach to food safety.

"How many such incidents do we need before we start addressing the real problem, which is that we don't have a food safety system in this country that covers all foods from farm to table?" asked Marion Nestle, a professor of food studies at New York University.

More Recalls

The reports of new deaths possibly tied to the outbreak came as the list of recalled products expanded.

That list already included such wide-ranging items as peanut butter-flavored cookies, candies, cereals, crackers, ice cream, even dog biscuits -- and some of the most popular brands.

Today, certain Whole Foods snacks joined the recall list, which includes familiar names such as Little Debbie and Famous Amos. Costco stores are even robo-calling customers to alert them they may have bought contaminated products.

Among the latest recalls, according to The Associated Press, are the following:

CDC: Make Sure Your Pantry Items Are Safe

Updates on product recalls appear on the Food and Drug Administration's Web site -- fda.gov. Updates on illnesses blamed on the salmonella outbreak appear on the CDC's Web site -- cdc.gov. And the American Peanut Council has posted a list of companies that say their products are safe to eat at peanutsusa.com.

Anyone with peanut butter or related products in their home should check the growing list of recalls, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.

"We think there's a lot of product still out there in people's pantries or in convenience stores," he said, "so we want people to make sure that if they have contaminated products, to discard that product."

Skinner added, however, that it is most likely that jar of peanut butter in your pantry is safe.

"Information to date does not suggest any of your major popular brands of peanut butter that are commonly found in grocery stores are contaminated, so those are okay to eat," he said.

Despite the growing list of recalls, officials are hopeful that this outbreak will be over soon.

"Hopefully we're starting to see the beginning to the end of this outbreak," Skinner said. "But it won't surprise us if we continue to see a few cases here and there for the next few weeks or so as this starts to wind down."

ABC News' Lauren Cox and Lisa Stark, ABC Radio and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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