Image: Bag of peanuts
Ken Hammond  /  U.S. Dept. of Agriculture via AP
The weeks-long salmonella scare linked to shoddy practices at a peanut manufacturer has produced congressional hearings, multiple product recalls and a pervasive suspicion of peanuts as a health hazard.
updated 3/22/2009 12:53:36 PM ET 2009-03-22T16:53:36

One Sunday afternoon this month, an unusual scene played out at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Partisans of a particular product waded into the crowd, distributing tiny sacks of snacks. By day's end, they had handed out 64,000 bags of skinless roasted Georgia peanuts.

It was Peanut Farmer Appreciation Day. And these days, appreciation for the peanut can be hard to come by. "It's been upsetting to be classified as a high risk," says Tim Burch, who farms 500 acres of peanuts in Newton, Ga.

We munch 'em at ballgames, name comic strips after 'em, pulverize 'em into a spread that has enticed generations of children to everything from cookies to PB&Js to fluffernutters. During the Civil War we ate them, boiled, across the South, and sang about the affection for "goober peas." We export more of them than any other country.

In America, when it comes to food, the low-cost, high-protein peanut is one of the national icons — right up there with the hamburger and the apple. "We grew up, and it was just a part of our lives," says Beth Feldman, a New York Web entrepreneur, mother and peanut fan from childhood.

But after more than a decade of allergy concerns in which attitudes about peanut safety ebbed and flowed, this year things got abruptly worse.

Increasing wariness
The weeks-long salmonella scare linked to shoddy practices at a manufacturer called the Peanut Corp. of America has produced congressional hearings , multiple product recalls and a pervasive suspicion of peanuts as a health hazard that has undercut the entire industry.

"The peanut survived and thrived during the time when the peanut allergy became more public," says Andrew F. Smith, a food historian and author of a book about peanut lore. "The peanut industry," he says, "was doing fine until this latest one."

Fear is a potent force when it comes to food safety, and the list of cautionary, salmonella-related peanut responses keeps unfurling.

A Seattle food bank pulled 1,500 pounds of peanuts from distribution just in case. A Massachusetts produce company yanked peanut-laden bagged snacks from the market for the same reason. In Sussex County, Va., which bills itself as the peanut center of America, the Virginia Diner issued a letter to customers detailing its efforts "to assure that our products and processes are safe."

For years, the long-beloved peanut has been an object of increasing wariness thanks to the allergens that have made it dangerous and even lethal for a small percentage of people. Today, some 1.8 million Americans are allergic to peanuts to some extent.

Some schools and day-care centers have banned not only peanuts but things that have touched them. In 2006, US Airways stopped serving peanuts because of concerns about allergies — but allowed passengers to bring their own. It wasn't the first.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

And last summer at Safeco Field in Seattle, the Mariners set aside 150 seats on two nights for a peanut-free baseball-watching zone. The seats sold out, and the team posted instructions online for "the least peanut-exposed path to your ticketed area."

In other words, the peanut's lot in life was already fraught enough, thank you, even before the word salmonella reared its head early this year.

"Some things have a degree of invisibility. We don't get attached," says Lisa Heldke, a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota who teaches courses on the philosophy of food. Peanuts, she says, are different.

"For white Americans, peanut butter has been this quintessential symbol. What do you do when you go to school? You carry a PB and J sandwich. So it's painful for people to realize that this food is deadly to many children."

And now salmonella. In response to it, the industry is battling back with a flurry of positive peanut portrayals — efforts to illustrate that the majority of peanuts had nothing to do with the problematic manufacturer and are, in fact, safe. (The offending company's output represents only about 2.5 percent of the country's total peanut products.)

So was born the Great Speedway Peanut Giveaway of 2009. According to Joy Carter, director of communications for the Georgia Peanut Commission, most NASCAR fans that day weren't viewing peanuts as dangerous; they saw only a free salty snack. What's more, 300 peanut farmers and their families attended the day's race as the human face of peanuts.

"We were able to get the message out," Carter says. It probably didn't hurt that they did it in March, which is National Peanut Month anyway.

Temporary scare?
American food icons have come under siege before. The burger occasionally becomes an object of suspicion when an outbreak of E. coli sickens fast-food diners. In 1989, a scare with the pesticide Alar after a "60 Minutes" report cost apple growers more than $100 million, even though most weren't using the offending substance.

Even the worst food PR disaster in this country, the controversy over meatpacking plants after Upton Sinclair's 1906 muckraking novel "The Jungle," didn't turn Americans away from their beloved beef and pork once federal safety measures were instituted.

Feldman, who runs an online community and events-hosting service for parents called, is eyeing the peanut's recent travails with interest after seeing years of nervousness about peanuts because of allergy fears. As a peanut-watching nation of parents, she says, "We're in a state of high alert."

Feldman sees the salmonella scare as a very temporary thing that has little in common with the longtime allergy unease.

“There are a lot of things about peanuts that are very good for kids,” she says. "People are going to be scared for the next month or so, and then we'll go back into, ‘OK, it's all right again.'’

The salmonella outbreak comes even as new research suggests peanut allergies may eventually be surmountable. The findings, released at a meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, hint at a path to building up resistance for people with allergies.

Which would go a long way toward ensuring the peanut's continuing place in the national pantry, where many want it to be. For it takes a lot to shut down America's foodways. Those instincts run deep.

"Things may be difficult today, but they'll be better tomorrow," says Smith, the peanut's biographer, whose grandfather farmed peanuts. The peanut, he says, has a lot going for it. "Lots of Americans like it. It's not going away. It has a problem, and they need to solve it. But my suspicions are, because of the huge industry that's associated with it, there will be solutions."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments