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Food inspectors on the hunt for tainted peanut butter products

ST. PAUL -- Food inspectors are fanning out across Minnesota this week to make sure potentially tainted peanut butter products are no longer for sale.

The list of products that could be infected with possibly deadly salmonella bacteria tops 800, leading to what some say is the biggest recall in the country's history.

"They are looking for any of those 800 products ... making sure all of those identified products are removed from sale," Ben Miller of the Minnesota Agriculture Department said Monday about the inspectors.

They will visit places such as grocery and convenience stores.

The peanut butter problem did not begin in Minnesota, but three of the country's eight deaths believed related to the contaminated Georgia-produced peanut butter were in Minnesota. Thirty-six Minnesotans were reportedly sickened in the outbreak, among the most in the country.

At a Minnesota House agriculture committee hearing Monday, state agriculture and health department officials passed around the remainder of a five-pound tub of peanut butter -- sealed in plastic -- that allowed them to solve the nationwide outbreak.

The tub came from a Brainerd nursing home, where a Perham woman's death is blamed on salmonella in the peanut butter. Relatives of Shirley Mae Almer sued the peanut butter maker over her death.

"That is, in fact, the smoking tub," Leeann Johnson of the Agriculture Department told lawmakers.

Minnesota health and agriculture department employees put together the pieces of the salmonella puzzle that allowed national health officials to slow the outbreak.

"The more we looked at it, the more the peanut butter began to stand out," Miller said.

"Once we had identified peanut butter as probably the suspect vehicle, we began to look back," Miller added.

That is when it was discovered the Georgia-made King Nut peanut butter was distributed by Sysco of Fargo, N.D., to institutions such as schools, nursing homes and hospitals in northwestern Minnesota.

National health officials say brand-name peanut butter on store shelves is safe, but products ranging from crackers to ice cream that contain peanut butter should be avoided.

Dr. Kirk Smith of the Health Department said his agency is receiving more calls than normal from people with diarrhea, a salmonella poisoning symptom. Most are not connected to the peanut butter problem, he said.

The outbreak began in October and peaked in December.

Nationwide, more than 500 people in 43 states have been affected, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Minnesota's 36 illnesses and three deaths centered on the northern part of the state.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, wanted to know what was being done to prevent Minnesota-made products from problems like the Georgia peanut butter. Miller said the state's most senior inspectors check food-manufacturing plants.