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Peanut Butter May Be Labeled High Risk

Open container of peanut butter.
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In the wake of a deadly salmonella outbreak, the government may designate peanut butter as a high-risk food, according to a top health official.

Dr. Stephen Sundlof, the head of the FDA's food safety center, told lawmakers that peanut butter may be singled out for special attention as agency inspectors will start routinely collecting samples of peanut butter and other foods for bacterial testing whenever they go into a facility. Currently that's done only if officials suspect a problem.

Sundlof said the government is weighing whether to classify peanut butter as a high-risk food. That means producers would be required to follow written food safety plans to prevent contamination.

The current salmonella outbreak has sickened some 600 people and is being linked to nine deaths. More than 1,900 products have been recalled.

On Wednesday, the CEO of Georgia-based Peanut Corporation of America, which has been linked to the tainted peanuts at the heart of the outbreak, pleaded the fifth amendment when questioned by lawmakers.

Stewart Parnell sat stone faced, and took the Fifth in response to every angry question regarding the bacteria-tainted products he defiantly told employees to ship to some 50 manufacturers of cookies, crackers and ice cream.

"Turn them loose," Parnell had told his plant manager in an internal e-mail disclosed at the House hearing. The e-mail referred to products that once were deemed contaminated but were cleared in a second test last year.

Summoned by congressional subpoena, Parnell repeatedly invoked his right not to incriminate himself at the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing. Parnell sat stiffly, his hands folded in his lap at the witness table, as Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., held up a clear jar of his company's products wrapped in crime-scene tape and asked if he would eat them.

"Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, on advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer your questions based on the protections afforded me under the U.S. Constitution," Parnell responded.

After he repeated the statement several times, lawmakers dismissed him from the hearing. Parnell chose not to be in the hearing room when devastated families testified, CBS News correspondent Nancy Cordes reports.

Shortly after Parnell's appearance, a lab tester told the panel that the company discovered salmonella at its Blakely, Ga., plant as far back as 2006. Food and Drug Administration officials told lawmakers more federal inspections could have helped prevent the outbreak.

"We appear to have a total systemic breakdown," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the committee's investigations subcommittee.