Can American People Continue To Want One Of Our Favorite Historical Foods After Poison Outbreak?

A scoop straight out of the jar has gotten many a student through a long study session. A peanut butter sandwich is one of the first snacks a little kid can make, and it is the rare baker who doesn’t have a peanut butter cookie in repertory.

A contamination scare could not have touched a more iconic American flavor. Almost 900 products were recalled after salmonella tied to hundreds of illnesses was traced last month to a Georgia peanut factory.

But while peanut butter’s popularity has made this threat particularly troubling, it may also help its reputation survive intact.

More than 80 percent of the nation’s households have a jar or two in the cabinet, with smooth far and away the preferred texture. Tens of millions of people regularly buy cereal, cookies, ice cream and candy made with it. The business of selling peanut butter in the United States is worth nearly $900 million a year.

There are times you just have to have some, said Jess Denaro, a New York University student from Brooklyn.

And peanut butter has the recession going for it. When the economy goes south, it’s one of the affordable but nutritionally rich foods that shoppers buy more of. There will be some specific categories that are going to do quite well, said Lynn Dornblaser, new-product analyst for Mintel, a consumer research company. We firmly believe peanut butter is one of them.

That’s not to say theres not going to be a short fear-induced drop in sales, she said, although it’s too soon for any reliable figures, especially because the company that processed the contaminated peanut butter has enlarged its recall to include any foods made with its products since January 2007.

The facts of the tainting are sobering. Officials have said that more than 500 people have become ill and 8 have died after digesting peanut butter and peanut products from a badly maintained plant in Blakely, Ga., run by the Peanut Corporation of America. The peanut butter was delivered to nursing homes, schools and other institutions, and peanut products were used in hundreds of processed foods.

The recall doesn’t include branded peanut butters on supermarket shelves but still involves a wider array of products than any other food recall in United States history.

The food items range from stuffed celery, frozen pad Thai, vegan cookies and trail mix to nut-topped ice cream novelties and candy. Although some well-known companies like Clif Bar, Kellogg’s and Hain Celestial are on the recall list, most of the products are store brands or sold under lesser-known labels. Even dog biscuits are implicated.

The only other time peanut butter was part of a large outbreak of food poisoning was in 2007. Salmonella was found in jars of Peter Pan and Great Value, both owned by ConAgra. That outbreak sickened more than 600 people, but no deaths were linked to it. ConAgra’s total business suffered a 20 percent drop in the 7 months the peanut butter was off the shelves, according to a report from Mintel.

Since 1985, when salmonella in milk from a Chicago-area dairy and listeria in soft cheese from Southern California caused dozens of deaths and tens of thousands of illnesses, the U.S. has learned to deal with an apparent increase in food-borne illnesses. Ground beef, fresh juice, chicken, seafood and spinach have all been carriers.

But packaged items on supermarket shelves have rarely been found to carry deadly pathogens. Critics of the food industry, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, say this outbreak points up how serious problems with food manufacturing can be.

Others, though, say it may inflate an already overblown fear of the food supply.

As far as I know, eating is now about being afraid, said Chris Kimball, the publisher and editor of Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country magazines.

This outbreak might inspire a person to make more of their own food, he said, adding that it will take more than an isolated case of food-borne illness, even one this serious, to make the U.S. turn its back on something as beloved as peanut butter.

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