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A chef demonstration and tasting event held last month at the elegant Astor Center in New York was an inadvertent venue for the image rehabilitation of the recently battered peanut industry, to judge from the comments of several attendees, including trade association executives, suppliers and peanut farmers.
Although the celebratory festivities, sponsored by the Atlanta-based National Peanut Board (NPB) and also featuring a two-day interactive exhibition at New York’s iconic and well-traveled Grand Central Station, were in the works before the salmonella outbreak and subsequent massive Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) product recall, they proved to be a perfect opportunity for the industry to get across its core messages of quality, safety and versatility.
Raffaela Marie Fenn, president and CEO of NPB, described the demonstration and tasting as an “up-close and personal opportunity” for people to experience exotic cuisines featuring peanuts, including dishes with roots in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Fenn deplored the actions of PCA, which she said had cast “an incredible cloud” over the entire industry. Fortunately, the event enabled peanut growers and product suppliers to set the record straight by providing correct information to confused shoppers on the safety of peanuts, she said.
Bernard Brown of the PB&J Campaign, a Web-based initiative with the goal of urging consumers to eat more plant-based foods as a way to help the environment, noted that “it’s hard to tell the impact” of this blitz of positive peanut news on wary consumers, but agreed that such high-profile gatherings can help remind the public that peanuts are safe and can be used in many “fun” ways.
Katalin Coburn, VP of Portales, N.M.-based Sunland, Inc., a vertically integrated company formed by Valencia peanut growers, declared herself “absolutely behind” such events, which bring “interesting, cool and new” products to the fore, since “most people don’t go beyond peanut butter and jelly.” At the present time, she noted, consumers need to be reassured that the peanut industry is responsible and accountable, since the screaming headlines on the outbreak and recall “freaked people out,” and many didn’t read beyond the initial reports. According to Coburn, Sunland was first inundated with consumer requests for answers in the wake of the PCA disaster, and then, once it was ascertained that Sunland products were safe, a rising demand for peanuts, leading to “a very interesting time” for the company.
Jimbo Grissom, peanut farmer and chairman of the Western Peanut Growers Association, which is a member of the United Peanut Alliance representing peanut farmers from New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, traveled to New York from the west Texas town of Seminole to attend the event, which he called a “very good way to publicize peanuts.”
Grissom pointed out that although PCA was responsible for just 2.5 percent of processed peanut products in the United States, growers like him, who are unconnected with the manufacturer, have suffered somewhat from its actions: Some peanut contracts from shellers “aren’t happening,” he noted, and peanut product was sitting in warehouses because of lower demand.
Still, events that educate the public and open up a whole new world of eating possibilities can only have a positive effect on the industry, observed Grissom, noting that the tasting offered “a place for everybody to come and find something they like.”
And according to the NPB, feedback to the events in New York has been “fantastic.” “We are still compiling numbers, but our best guess right now is that … we were able to reach more than 58 million consumers,” said board spokeswoman Jordan Worrall. “Above this, the events were featured on a number of Web sites and blogs.”
Heartened by this success, the organization has decided to continue its outreach — albeit on a more modest scale — with a series of city tours, during which “our team and board members can interact with consumers, helping to eliminate confusion and rebuild trust in peanuts,” as Worrall put it. Late last month, the NPB sponsored two previously scheduled athletic events in Atlanta and Washington, as a tie-in with its new “Energy for the Good Life” slogan, and the rest of the tour is currently in the planning stages, she added.
“We really feel that these events, where we can talk one-on-one with consumers, is the absolute best way to clear up much of the misinformation and confusion regarding the recall,” noted Worrall. “We are also putting our heads together trying to think of ways we can work with some of our manufacturing partners to help them get the word out about the safety of their products as they begin to reintroduce them to grocery store shelves.”
In other peanut news, the United Peanut Alliance recently sent a letter to President Obama requesting a meeting and help in correcting misconceptions about retail peanut butter, which was unaffected by the recall. In the letter, the growers also expressed support for legislation to bolster the U.S. food safety program.