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Lobbyists: In a nutshell, peanuts safe to eat

/ Source: The Associated Press

The battered peanut industry has a new message: Peanuts are safe to eat, and there's a law in the works to make them even safer. So have a handful.

In a nutshell, that's the theme of a lobbying and public relations campaign to help the industry rebound from a salmonella crisis blamed for killing at least nine people and sickening nearly 700 others.

With more than 3,400 peanut products recalled in the outbreak linked to Peanut Corp. of America, a rattled public is buying less of them. One analyst puts the economic damage at $1 billion.

The effort by farmers and food manufacturers is part of a delicate strategy: Backing new federal food safety rules to help reassure consumers, while opposing steps they think go too far. It also illustrates a hard lesson learned by groups that find themselves in Congress' crosshairs: It is better to help lawmakers shape regulations than to let others do it for you.

"We know things are going to have to be done, and we want to be part of fixing the problem," said Mike McLeod, a lobbyist representing the Western Peanut Growers Association, whose members are Texas peanut farmers. "We want to be perceived as being constructive in trying to get this problem behind us."

The nation's 10,000 peanut growers get nearly $1 billion a year for their crops, with products like peanut butter and candy generating billions more, according to Stanley Fletcher, a University of Georgia agriculture professor specializing in peanuts.

Fletcher estimates farmers alone could lose $500 million this year from the salmonella crisis, with an additional $500 million lost in overall economic activity. That makes tougher safety standards an easier sell to an industry which might otherwise resist.

"A safer product means higher consumer confidence. Higher consumer confidence means they sell more product," said Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., whose state is the nation's largest peanut producer.

Focus on food safety

Farmers have come to Washington to lobby Congress and the Obama administration. They've asked them to buy more peanut butter for federal feeding programs and to change a government program they say is driving peanut prices down. But the main focus is on safety.

The most prominent food safety bill is one sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., backed by Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson of Georgia. It would require companies to have food safety plans, empower the Food and Drug Administration to recall tainted products and require annual FDA inspections of facilities it considers high risk.

Durbin's bill has drawn praise from farmers, food manufacturers and consumer advocates, though there are divisions over whether to seek even stricter legislation. Consumer groups prefer at least yearly inspections for all food facilities, fees on food manufacturers to pay for the inspections and electronic tracking of food shipments.

"If they really want to protect their industry, they should support tougher oversight," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union.

The views of peanut interests are not uniform. Some farmers back requirements — like annual inspections of all food manufacturers, not just the risky ones — that the manufacturers oppose.

"The message from producers is all the same: We don't want this to happen again, and what does the government need to do to prevent this from happening again," said Bob Redding, a lobbyist representing growers from Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.

Tougher rules are needed but some, like yearly inspections, would make little sense, argues the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents major food companies.

"We should focus on activities that truly increase the safety of food and minimize steps that ultimately may increase the cost of food," said association lobbyist Scott Faber.

The food manufacturers far outgun peanut farmers in the lobbying wars.

The grocery manufacturers alone reported spending $4.5 million on lobbying last year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, and recently hired the high-profile Duberstein Group to lobby on food safety issues. The Texas growers reported spending just $40,000 lobbying last year, while the Georgia Peanut Commission, representing that state's farmers, spent $100,000.

Peanut PR

Convinced legislation alone isn't a solution, peanut interests have launched public relations campaigns.

Companies like the J.M. Smucker Co., makers of Jif peanut butter, have run national television ads and note prominently on their Internet sites that their products have not been recalled. Southern peanut growers gave more than 8,000 jars of peanut butter to Martha's Table, a Washington feeding program.

The National Peanut Board distributed peanuts at marathon races in Washington and Atlanta last month. It also used a long-planned New York City unveiling of a new slogan — "Peanuts: Energy for the good life" — to emphasize their products' safety, with farmers answering commuters' questions at a mock peanut field set up in Grand Central Terminal.

Peanut farmer Jimbo Grissom of Seminole, Texas, chairman of the Western Peanut Growers Association, wrote to President Barack Obama asking him to reassure consumers that peanut butter from supermarkets is safe. In a radio address, Obama had said his daughter Sasha often eats peanut butter sandwiches and said parents shouldn't have to worry about their children's lunches.

"We want to make sure that your statements do not lead Americans to believe that the peanut butter on their supermarket shelves is unsafe," Grissom said in a letter distributed to newspapers.

Grissom said he has received no response.