People are panicked about their peanut butter.
As the peanut butter recall expands nationwide, confusion abounds over which products are affected and which are still safe to eat. So far, Florida remains one of only seven states showing immunity to the salmonella outbreak that has sickened nearly 500 people in the United States and Canada. Six have died.
Manufacturers and product distributors are taking steps to reassure anxious consumers that their products are not linked to the tainted peanut butter produced by the Peanut Corp. of America. The Virginia-based company produces peanut butter and peanut paste used to make products such as energy bars, peanut butter crackers and other such snacks.
On Friday, the J.M. Smucker Co. ran large advertisements in newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times, saying that its popular Jif Peanut Butter and other Smucker products were not part of the recall. Girl Scouts of America sent out news releases saying its cookies are safe, while Peter Pan Peanut Butter put a similar announcement on its Web site.
The public relations blitz was a response to growing consumer angst over the recall of a leading and affordable staple of the American diet.
J.M. Smucker's consumer communications center was flooded with phone calls this week, fielding 18,000 from Monday to Friday morning.
"The recent and well-publicized — albeit confusing — information has created concern about peanut butter," said company spokeswoman Maribeth Badertscher. "We have a lot of loyal consumers for our brands. We're doing our best to reassure them … that our products are not involved in the recall."
Meanwhile, companies such as Costco began to send phone messages about recalled peanut butter products to warn their customers to throw away potentially tainted items. Publix, Sweetbay and other grocers also pulled products from shelves.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has posted a safe list of products for consumers on its Web site, along with recalled products. (Go to links.tampabay.com). But exactly how much peanut butter has been infected by salmonella typhimurium is unclear.
The American Peanut Council, the peanut industry's trade association, says the outbreak arose from an isolated problem at a Georgia facility owned by the Peanut Corp. of America.
"We are confident in saying that it is a small fraction of peanut butter production," said Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council.
The peanut industry produces about 1-billion pounds of peanut butter a year, resulting in $800-million in sales.
Archer says the industry has maintained a high level of consumer trust. "Overall, the peanut industry has an outstanding safety record," Archer said.
On Jan. 10, King Nut Co., the distributor of affected peanut butter, voluntarily issued a recall of its product that was produced between July 1 and the present.
The FDA later confirmed that salmonella illnesses were traced to the company.
Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said during a media teleconference that peanut butter does not require processing that kills bacteria such as salmonella. Plants are supposed to have practices in place to prevent the intrusion of salmonella, he said.
The source of the salmonella is unknown.
State and federal agencies don't have any theories about why the outbreak has not affected seven U.S. states: Florida, South Carolina, Alaska, Louisiana, New Mexico, Wyoming and Delaware.
Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health, said she could not speculate on why Florida seems immune. However, "the Florida Department of Health has enhanced its surveillance for salmonella cases in Florida residents," Smith said.
Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said the grocer is aware of consumer concern. For those who become too unsettled about peanut butter they bought, "they can come back to Publix for a refund," she said.
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332.