Peanut farmers fight bad PR

Published 11:14 pm Thursday, February 26, 2009

With consumers’ confidence in the peanut industry shaken by the actions of a company that produced less than 3 percent of the nation’s peanut products, Virginia peanut growers gathered this week to talk about how they will respond to the crisis in their industry.

“We’ve got to show consumers that it’s OK to use peanuts again,” said Dell Cotton, executive director of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association.

Cotton and other industry leaders used Tuesday’s annual meeting of the Growers Association to congratulate farmers on last year’s high peanut yields and to share their strategies for overcoming the negative publicity stemming from a salmonella outbreak associated with products originating at manufacturing facilities owned by Lynchburg-based Peanut Corporation of America.


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“Despite this one bad actor, this terrible company that did this, 97 percent of peanuts are fine,” Marie Fenn reminded the growers.

Fenn is the president and managing director of the National Peanut Board, which advocates on behalf of peanut growers throughout the United States.

She listed a variety of educational and promotional events and efforts the Peanut Board has put into motion to try to counter the negative publicity associated with the salmonella outbreak.

From national television and magazine advertising to in-person promotional events — including one planned for New York’s Grand Central Station next week featuring an indoor peanut field — the marketing effort is aimed at promoting peanuts as an excellent source of protein, while reminding people that the salmonella problem came from one manufacturer, not the farmers who supply the nation’s peanuts.

“America’s peanut farmers care,” said Roger Neitsch, a Texas peanut farmer and chairman of the National Peanut Board, in a letter that was scheduled to appear in USA Today this week.

“That’s why we are in support of efforts to safeguard and protect the growing, manufacturing and distribution of our peanuts. We don’t want anyone to ever worry about the safety of peanuts or any food product again.”

Officials are especially worried about the impact of negative publicity on the sales of peanut butter at the consumer level. Fenn said she and her associates have met and talked with retailers nationwide to reassure them and remind them of the FDA’s finding that “major national brands of jarred peanut butter found in grocery stores have not been among the products recalled.”

The consumer worries about peanut butter safety have led to shortages of the staple at food banks across Virginia, and the Virginia growers’ association responded on Tuesday by collecting money to send to the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia for use in helping to restock shelves with the product.

The salmonella outbreak, however, is just one of the problems peanut farmers expect to face this year, Cotton said following Tuesday’s meeting.

Bumper crops last year across the nation mean that there is an abundance of peanuts in the market, a fact he expects to play a part in lower prices for farmers this year.

“It totally comes down to what the (farmers’) contract (price) is going to be,” he said. “I think we were going to have this problem, regardless of the salmonella thing.”

Peanut production in Virginia grew to 23,000 acres last year, following a drop to about 16,000 acres on the heels of the end of government price supports. Considering the market pressures, Cotton said he expects the number of acres devoted to peanuts to drop somewhat this year.

“We are going to recover,” he said. “But it’s going to take a while.”