SYLVESTER, Ga. (AP) - Empty spots remain on peanut butter shelves in supermarkets, and the only plant that makes the Peter Pan brand of the popular sandwich spread remains shut down three weeks after the government announced the nation's first salmonella outbreak tied to the peanut butter.
The investigation continues into how the dangerous germ got into the product, which sickened at least 370 people nationwide, and residents of the small Georgia town where the plant is one of the largest employers are growing impatient.
Pearson Golden, owner of Golden's Seed and Feed Co., 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,'' said Golden, 71, whose family has operated the downtown store for 61 years.
Golden 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,'' Golden said.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors have found the salmonella strain that caused the outbreak at the plant and on jars of some of the people who were sickened. But they apparently have not identified the source of the salmonella, so the plant remains closed indefinitely.
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, located 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 sponsors its annual 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, a jeweler. ''The community is behind the company and Peter Pan. We just want things to get back to normal.''
ConAgra spokeswoman 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. About 100 employees work at the plant, and they continue to be paid and report to work each day for ''maintenance and training,'' Childs said.
Two companies that support the peanut butter plant - a shelling company and a trucking company - say they've been able to maintain normal operations. A third company, which removes the skin from peanuts, declined to comment.