Rebuilding trust in all things peanut: advertizing, actions or both?

The National Peanut Board is joining Jif and Peter Pan in attempting to save American newspapers by investing in advertizing to woo back skeptical consumers.

In a press release and full-page letter in USA Today on Wednesday (thanks, Margaret – dp) peanut producer pooh-bahs announced they will set up shop in Vanderbilt Hall in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal March 4 and 5 to meet consumers, answer questions and give away samples of peanuts, peanut butter and other peanut items. The event kicks off the farmers’ efforts nationally to rebuild consumer confidence in products made with the crops they grow.

Roger Neitsch, Texas peanut farmer and chairman of the National Peanut Board — the research and promotion board funded by peanut growers, said,

“No one is more deeply disturbed by the recent salmonella crisis than the thousands of USA peanut farmers and their families. We may be peanut farmers, but we also are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters — and consumers. So we understand and share the concerns being experienced these days by families across America.”

But is recruiting celebrity chefs and athletes, while portraying farmers as producers of all things safe, really enough?

Noted science-and-society type, Dorothy Nelkin, noted in 1995 that, efforts to convince the public about the safety and benefits of new or existing technologies — or in this case the safety of the food supply — rather than enhancing public confidence, may actually amplify anxieties and mistrust by denying the legitimacy of fundamental social concerns. The public expresses a much broader notion of risk, one concerned with, among other characteristics, accountability, economics, values and trust.

As I’ve said before, the best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants should go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

The makers of Jif and Peter Pan have already gone on record saying they will not disclose their own food safety test results.

Nelkin, D. 1995. Forms of intrusion: comparing resistance to information technology and biotechnology in the USA in Resistance to New Technology ed. by M. Bauer. Cambridge University Press, New York. pp. 379-390.

Salmonella-in-peanut-thingies outbreak could last years

Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of food safety at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the national salmonella outbreak linked to more than 2,600 peanut products could last as long as two years, adding,

“We’re really concerned. This is not over yet.”

That’s because peanut products, seemingly harmless as they linger in homes and the marketplace, can have a relatively long shelf life, officials said.

The national outbreak has now sickened 666 people in 45 states and is suspected of causing at least nine deaths.

Peanut butter outbreak’s impact on small businesses

Karla Cook writes in tomorrow’s New York Times that the Peanut Corp of America-linked Salmonella outbreak’s reach has not been limited to multi-national companies:

Small businesses in all corners of the United States bought potentially tainted peanut products from the Peanut Corporation of America and are now part of one of the largest food recalls ever in this country. There is the chef in Las Vegas, for instance, who used them in protein bars, the packager of nuts and dried fruits in Connecticut, the cannery in Montana that sold chocolate-covered nuts and the ice cream manufacturer in New York State.

While big companies like Kellogg, Kraft and General Mills have the experience and staff to handle recalls, many small businesses have never had to deal with anything like this.
Some have had to keep employees on overtime or hire additional help to handle the recall-related work — records have to be searched to identify and track products, and replacement products manufactured. And company officials say they are spending a lot of time reassuring their customers.
“It’s not our fault this recall went through,” said Tom Lundeen, who co-owns Aspen Hills Inc., in Garner, Iowa, which makes frozen cookie dough for fund-raisers. “We do everything correct and we
have an incredibly high level of quality control, and we still have to pay for the mistakes of P.C.A.”

Yep, exactly – this outbreak has demonstrated the complexity and interconnectedness of the food system — which has largely been built on trust in suppliers or the results of their third-party audits.

Jenny Scott, a microbiologist and vice president of science policy and food protection for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group in Washington, said small businesses need to know their suppliers’ food safety culture and practices, and whether the suppliers are capable of doing the right thing. Last week, she helped teach a Web seminar for 60 participants, “The Ingredient Supply Chain: Do You Know Who You’re in Bed With?” 

Like it was straight out of the pages of barfblog — although trying to assess the food safety culture and supplier practices is difficult, it’s not impossible. Creating and fostering the openess and transparency of food production through marketing food safety, with companies opening their doors can help buyers make decisions.

Benjamin Chapman, food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, went further. “If you’re in the peanut butter industry, you need to be thinking about salmonella,” he said. Learning about suppliers is challenging when the supplier is not local, and the layers of the national food system are difficult to pierce.

Times food safety editorial is nutty

An editorial in Tuesday’s N.Y. Times about the now bankrupt Peanut Corporation of America and its Salmonella shitfest is long on outrage but short on imagination.

“While most successful food producers are far more diligent — big name-brand peanut butter is considered safe, for example — American consumers have faced far too many food-supply emergencies in the last few years.”

Is ConAgra a big food company? Wasn’t Peter Pan peanut butter the source of a huge Samonella outbreak in 2007?

“Congress needs to find more money for inspectors, especially at the Food and Drug Administration.”

Maybe, but lots of federal and state inspectors, along with the best and brightest the Ponzi scheme of food safety auditing had to offer all seemed to miss the problems at PCA. If someone wants to break the law and ship Salmonella-contaminated product, it’s going to happen.

“President Obama promised during the campaign to create a government that does a better job of protecting the American consumer. The nation’s vulnerable food supply is a healthy place to start.”

Government has a role. But nowhere did the Times editorial mention the power of consumer choice that would be unleashed if food producers would truthfully market their microbial food safety programs, coupled with behavioral-based food safety systems that foster food safety culture from farm-to-fork. The best producers and processors will go far beyond the lowest common denominator of government and should be rewarded in the marketplace.

Finding the right words

Valentine’s Day isn’t so much about the chocolate or the candlelight or the bling; it’s a reminder of the kind words that should be shared between lovers all the other days of the year.

I didn’t get that off a greeting card.

Finding the right words can be rewarding. As Jimmy Buffett sings,

“But the right word at the right time
May get me a little hug
That’s the difference between lightening
And a harmless lightening bug.”

Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, said
many more children will die from being hit by lightning than tainted peanut butter, which has so far killed nine and sickened 636 people.

"Are you going to prohibit your child from going outside every time it rains? If you’re rational, what you’ll do is, if there’s lightning outside, you’ll keep them in, and when that’s done, you let them go out safely and go to school in the rain. I think this is the same thing. It’s very reasonable to take peanut butter off the menu until we knew what was going on, but then it’s not anymore."

Risk comparisons are risky. I’m not sure how lightening compares to the deliberate, criminal, douchebaggery of knowingly sending out product laced with Salmonella.

Associate Professor Mark Kantor with the Department of Nutrition and Food Science at the University of Maryland blamed the current outbreak on former U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1980-1988).

"The current problem of salmonella in peanuts can be traced back to the Reagan presidency when a nationwide climate of deregulation began.”

If someone like Stewart Parnell, CEO of Peanut Corporation of America, wants to break the law, it will get broken, regardless of who is President.

Others have exploited the survey route for instant news coverage.

On Thursday, a couple of PR firms released an online survey showed that 23 percent of consumers questioned said the most recent food scare would change their long-term buying habits.

“Almost all of the 501 consumers surveyed (93 percent) said they had recently read about or heard of food safety issues and recalls.”

This is not news. It’s an Internet survey to apparently draw attention to “Burson-Marsteller’s expertise in food communications and product recalls.”

These are the same people who brag, Burson Helps Old Navy Celebrate the "First Official Day of Flip-Flops"

In Seabrook, Texas, Dayna Steele is more worried that her 9-year-old son will become sick if he doesn’t eat peanut butter. After years of trying to get him to eat other foods, his pediatrician said, "He’s fine. Let him eat all the peanut butter he wants. When he meets a girl, he’ll start eating something else."

Feel the Valentine’s Day love.

Valentines Day – Give love, not Salmonella

I love Valentine’s Day. It’s not that I’m a romantic, but that most years it was an excuse to get drunk, and last year a dude even ran through my Calculus class in nothing but a diaper and wings. Valentine’s Day is always a hoot.

This year I’ve spent time in candy aisles rather than calculus lectures, scanning for recalled Valentine’s chocolate linked to the current Salmonella outbreak. As I wrote in bites,

    With over 600 ill and 9 deaths linked to peanut paste produced by the Peanut Corp. of America, consumers may opt to give flowers rather than sweets on February 14. Of the 2000 peanut products recalled, over 670 contain chocolate. The popular peanut-chocolate combination is found in chocolate trays, bars, snack mixes, cookies, pies, and more, all examples of recalled products, and all popular Valentine’s gifts. 

The Walgreens pharmacy and Wal-Mart superstore in Manhattan, Kansas, both featured prominent Valentine’s Day displays during the past week. Aisle after aisle was stocked with pink and red packaged peanut-chocolate treats, but nowhere was there mention to the safety of these items. A concerned consumer wishing to purchase these must either scan the 68 pages of chocolate products recalled on the FDA website, or trust that potentially contaminated products have been removed from store shelves. But with the recall list growing daily, consumers may find it difficult to assume the chocolate-covered peanuts that are safe today won’t be added to the recall list tomorrow. 

Keith Warriner, a food microbiologist at the University of Guelph in Canada, explained last week via email, the concerns associated with Salmonella in chocolate products. “Because chocolate is high in fat it protects Salmonella from environmental stress and stomach acid,” said Dr. Warriner. “So in effect, if chocolate does become contaminated, Salmonella survives longer and only needs to be present in low numbers to survive passage through the stomach.”

Chocolate is a not uncommon vector for Salmonella. In 2006 both Cadbury and Hershey brand chocolate products were associated with separate Salmonella contamination. Cadbury recalled over 1 million chocolate bars in the UK after more than 40 consumers were sickened, and 3 were hospitalized due to Salmonella contamination from poor plant sanitation. A few months later, Hershey Canada recalled candy products due to possible Salmonella contamination, and though there were no reported illnesses, some of this recalled Hershey product re-entered the marketplace two years later.

Though I didn’t see any of the recalled products while shopping, it’s hard to be certain none were missed with over 670 products being recalled. I also didn’t see any signs informing consumers about the safety of the sweets in these aisles. If a store is confident recalled peanut-products have been removed from shelves, a way to help out consumers is putting up some signs in the aisles. 

Peanut Corp. president urged shipping tainted nuts

It’s as bad as it gets.

Early reporting from today’s U.S. Congressional oversight and investigation subcommittee hearing where Peanut Corp. of America President Stewart Parnell was forced to appear and is expected to take the Fifth Amendment and not testify, depicts a company focused on profits rather than food safety.

E-mails between Parnell and Sammy Lightsey, manager of the company’s Blakely plant, were released as part of a congressional hearing that started at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

• In one e-mail, Lightsey wrote Parnell discussing positive salmonella tests on its products, but Parnell gave instructions to nonetheless “turn them loose” after getting a negative test result from another testing company.

• In another e-mail, Parnell expressed his concerns over the losing “$$$$$$” due to delays in shipment and costs of testing.

• Parnell in another company-wide e-mail told employees there was no salmonella in its plants, instead accusing the news media of “looking for a news story where there currently isn’t one.”

On Jan. 19, Parnell sent an e-mail to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, pleading with the agency to let it stay in business.

He wrote that company executives “desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money.”

Other revelations underpinning the Salmonella outbreak:

• The Georgia Department of Agriculture conducted two inspections of the company’s Blakely, Ga. plant in 2008, but did not test for salmonella on its own on either occasion — despite an internal agency goal to conduct such tests once a year.

• The company’s largest customers, including Kellogg’s, engaged contractors to conduct audits, but they did not conduct their own salmonella tests.

*The FDA did not test for salmonella at the plant, despite the 2007 salmonella outbreak traced to the Con-Agra plant about 70 miles from Peanut Corp. of America’s Blakely plant.

Texas peanut plant closed after Salmonella possibly found

"It is clear that Peanut Corp. of America is not a producer that companies could — or can — rely on for a safe product.”

That’s what Seattle lawyer Bill Marler said after private lab tests show there may have been salmonella at a second plant operated by PCA in Plainview, Texas.

The Texas Department of Health said in a statement the plant temporarily closed Monday night at the request of health officials after the tests found "the possible presence of salmonella" in some of its products.

The Texas closing comes a day after the FBI raided the company’s plant in Georgia, hauling off boxes and other material. Agents executed search warrants at both the plant and at Peanut Corp.’s headquarters in Lynchburg, Va., according to a senior congressional aide with knowledge of the raids.

Also today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control upped the sick form Salmonella numbers to 600 in 44 states, along with at least eight deaths.

Some retailers slow to pull peanut products; test results need to be public

Shelly Awl, a clerk at a gas station on Cheshire Bridge Road in Atlanta, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution yesterday,

“It’s so confusing. I wish they would communicate better what is safe and what is not.”

At a gas station in North Fulton, Karan Singh eyed with suspicion a pile of energy bars, cookies and snacks that had been laid at the check-out counter for purchase, telling a customer,

“I don’t think I should sell these to you. These might not be good.”

While many stores — particularly major supermarkets — appear to be keeping up with the recalls, smaller stores seem to be less consistent, according to some spot checks by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The salmonella outbreak linked to a South Georgia peanut-processing plant has spawned one of the largest product recalls in American history. The list of products that are off-limits has risen to 1,550, with new names coming out daily.

However, at Publix stores, spokeswoman Brenda Reid said recall alerts from suppliers and the FDA are immediately e-mailed to stores, which then have three hours to respond that they have removed the recalled item from the shelf. If it’s not accomplished, company managers continue to contact the store and will even send a representative there. District managers also check during their visits, she said.

The recalled item is also logged into the store’s computer, so if a customer finds one, the cashier will be alerted and will not be able to ring it up, Reid said.

Kroger stores are alerting customers who have a Kroger Plus Card of any recalled purchases through automated phone calls.

And in a feature tomorrow, the Journal-Constitution reports federal food regulators describe the 2007 Peter Pan peanut butter salmonella outbreak traced to a Georgia plant in 2007 as “a wake-up call.” But that realization did not lead officials to scrutinize at least one other peanut processor: the Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely.

They didn’t even know the plant made peanut butter.

The FDA first learned of possible salmonella contamination at ConAgra four years ago — two years before officials traced hundreds of illnesses to Peter Pan.

In early 2005, an anonymous tipster told the FDA that ConAgra’s internal testing had detected salmonella in a batch of peanut butter the previous October, agency records show. Company executives confirmed the test results to an FDA inspector but refused to turn over lab reports unless the agency requested them in writing. The inspector left the plant, records show, and never again requested the reports.

Congressional investigators later learned that FDA policy discouraged written document requests. Federal courts, the FDA said, had ruled that if manufacturers turned over material in response to a formal request from the government, those documents could not be used as evidence in a criminal prosecution against them.

But in the vast majority of cases, investigator David Nelson told a House subcommittee in 2007, the FDA pursues neither documents nor criminal charges. Nelson termed the agency’s actions “nonsensical.”

The FDA cited no violations following the 2005 inspection in Sylvester, said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for ConAgra, which is based in Omaha, Neb. Long before the inspector arrived, Childs said, the plant had destroyed the contaminated peanut butter.

This is why when companies claim they test for Salmonella, like in this ad for Jif (upper left, thanks Barb) that ran today, it’s sorta meaningless without some sort of public disclosure or oversight.

Sales drop 25% as parents shun peanut butter

A story in Saturday’s  N.Y. Times will report that sales of all brands of peanut butter are down by nearly 25 percent – and those numbers will get worse.

The contaminated peanut butter traced to the Georgia plant represents a small percentage of the total $800 million in annual sales by the peanut butter companies in the United States. But the public relations problem for the rest of the industry is unlikely to ease anytime soon. …

So far, the salmonella outbreak has been linked to 575 illnesses and eight deaths, and more than 1,500 products have been recalled, including cookies, ice cream and pet food.

In response, brands like Jif and Peter Pan are taking out ads to tell shoppers that their products are not affected, and giving them a coupon.


Oh, I’m sorry, I fell asleep.

Instead of telling consumers what they aren’t, maybe the big peanut butter types could tell people what they are – the food safety steps they take to produce a product that won’t make people barf.

The best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants should go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

The makers of Jif and Peter Pan have already gone on record saying they will not disclose their own food safety test results.