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.
Suspicion about peanuts
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 also 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.
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.
In response to the salmonella scare, 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.)
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 Rolemommy .com, 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.