The beleaguered peanut industry is steering its message from boasts about the healthy nature of its products to a more defensive pitch: They're safe to eat.
The National Peanut Board dispatched a battery of farmers, chefs and food manufacturers to New York City this week to allay consumer fears, a publicity blitz it says was in the works long before troubles surfaced. Nine deaths in recent months are suspected from a salmonella outbreak related to peanut products linked to a single company and at least 677 people have been sickened.
"Is it safe to eat?" asked a woman, with an eye on the peanut butter containers being offered passers-by at Grand Central Terminal. "Of course it's safe," said David B. McClurg with the New York Apple Association, who offered sliced apples to dip into the peanut butter.
Roger Neitsch, a peanut farmer and chairman of the trade group, said misconceptions about the safety of peanut products have started to crimp farmer livelihoods. Farmers usually start receiving their year's peanut contracts in January, he said. "We're 60 days into the new year and there are no contracts to be had," he said. "There's certainly time between now and spring planting, but it gets more critical every day."
The industry has much to do to reverse its declining fortunes. The salmonella outbreak that federal health authorities traced to Peanut Corp. of America in early January has triggered a recall of more than 3,000 products that used the company's peanut paste, peanut meal, peanut butter and other ingredients.
Peanut Corp. sold bulk peanut butter to nursing homes and schools, and major-brand peanut butter sold at grocery stores wasn't subject to the recall. But confusion over which products were affected has hurt retail peanut-butter sales.
In the four weeks that ended on Jan. 24, sales of peanut butter in jars tumbled 11.5% from the previous four-week period and 3.8% from a year earlier. "While the year-over-year decline may seem minimal, it comes after eight consecutive periods of double-digit growth in this category," Nielsen Co. said in a recent research report.
Major corporations are spotlighting safety in their marketing. J.M. Smucker Co., maker of Jif peanut butter, has been running TV and newspaper ads seeking to reassure consumers. The Orrville, Ohio, company delayed its annual "most creative peanut butter sandwich" contest for children "because we wanted to make sure the kids who were participating in the contest were getting positive attention for the recipes they were creating," said Smucker spokeswoman Maribeth Badertscher.
ConAgra Foods Inc., maker of Peter Pan peanut butter, turned to the Internet to stoke sales. It emailed the three million consumers who subscribe to its Web site for recipes and product information to assure them that Peter Pan is safe. The Omaha, Neb., company is also using ads that appear alongside online news articles about the recall and Google searches for "peanut butter recall." One Web ad urges consumers: "Be Safe & Eat Peter Pan Peanut Butter. No Salmonella & No recall from the FDA." (Below it, a law firm promotes "Lawsuits for Salmonella Illness.")
The National Peanut Board turned a hall at Grand Central Terminal into an exhibition, with mascots and tables of giveaways. "I want you to eat some more peanuts now," called out Sue Birdsong, passing around Snickers and Peanut M&Ms. Her husband heads a peanut-shelling company.
Federal health officials have their own message: The shelf life of recalled products such as crackers, cookies and nutrition bars is long. "Consumers could still have these products at their homes," said Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek.
Health officials have ordered recalls of all products made with ingredients from Peanut Corp. plants in Georgia and Texas dating to 2007.