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Published: Friday, 3/9/2007

Home of Peter Pan plant eager for it to restart work

ASSOCIATED PRESS

SYLVESTER, Ga. - Peter Pan peanut butter's only production plant remained closed yesterday, three weeks after the government announced the nation's first salmonella outbreak tied to the spread.

Investigators are still trying to determine how the product became contaminated, causing illness in at least 425 people nationwide. Meanwhile, residents of this small Georgia town, where the plant is one of the largest employers, are growing impatient.

Pearson Golden, 71, owner of a downtown seed and feed store, refuses to part with his jar of Peter Pan, even though it bears the "2111" product code that indicates it's part of the recall. "I'm going to eat it," he said

He and other Sylvester residents are fiercely loyal to the plant operated by ConAgra Foods Inc. and are eager for its product to return to the market.

"Put it back on the shelves again because my supply is running low," Mr. Golden said.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors have found the illness-causing salmonella strain at the plant and in jars owned by some of the people who became ill. But they apparently have not identified the source of the salmonella, so the plant remains closed.

Government and industry officials have said the contamination may have been caused by dirty jars or equipment, although heat in the manufacturing process is usually high enough to kill germs.

The only other known salmonella outbreak in peanut butter - in Australia during the mid-1990s - was blamed on unsanitary plant conditions.

Residents who have toured the plant describe it as scrupulously clean and say they were stunned when "their" plant was named in the Feb. 14 recall of all Peter Pan and Great Value brands of peanut butter. The recall includes all peanut butter made since December, 2005, in Sylvester, about 160 miles south of Atlanta.

Sylvester and surrounding Worth County are closely linked to peanut production. Farmers pride themselves on having some of the state's top yields, and the town holds a Georgia Peanut Festival each October with ConAgra as a major sponsor.

"It's a point of pride with us that all the Peter Pan peanut butter in the world is made right here in Sylvester," said Mayor Bill Yearta. "The community is behind the company and Peter Pan. We just want things to get back to normal."

ConAgra spokesman Stephanie Childs said the recall will cost the company between $50 million and $60 million, but officials say the shutdown has had no measurable economic effect on the community. The plant has about 100 employees, and they continue to be paid and report to work each day for "maintenance and training," Ms. Childs said.

A shelling company and a trucking company that serve the peanut butter plant say they've been able to maintain normal operations. A third company, which removes the skin from peanuts, declined to comment.



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