The peanut industry can look forward to more good news than bad in the next few years, despite current over-supply, low prices and a salmonella contamination that affects the entire industry.
“We'll come out of the salmonella issue stronger than ever,” said Howard Valentine, executive director of the Peanut Foundation. Valentine spoke on current peanut issues at the recent Oklahoma Peanut Expo in Lone Wolf, Okla.
He said industry changes to be initiated worldwide will restore public confidence in peanuts and peanut products.
Current lack of consumer confidence and the accompanying effect on markets come from what Valentine described as a “criminal offense” by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA), headquartered in Blakely, Ga., with another plant in Texas.
He said a Jan. 13, 2009, product recall followed reports of hundreds of people sickened by salmonella contaminated peanut products. So far, nine deaths have been attributed to the contamination.
Valentine said the recall included only 30,000 pounds of peanuts, which he describes as “a small amount. PCA sold to small companies.” The recall ultimately totaled 3,000 products, which is a lot, Valentine said.
The company allegedly shipped peanuts to various manufacturers in spite of records that showed 12 positive tests for salmonella. Eventually every product from the PCA plant was recalled. The plant was closed as was one in Texas.
“PCA has done immeasurable damage to the industry,” Valentine said. “But we will work through the problems and come out stronger. I think we will do that. We will change consumer perceptions.”
He said the issue has unified the peanut industry. It also proved a catalyst for change. Valentine said the entire industry, from producers to manufacturers, are making changes to provide better safeguards.
A kill-step recommendation is a key. Valentine said a combination of time and the right temperature is required to kill salmonella on peanuts. “Now, kill-step regulations will be released to manufacturers worldwide,” he said. Regulations have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“We will continue to study and update good agricultural and manufacturing practices,” he said. A key will be improved sanitation, such as covering equipment to prevent contamination from bird droppings. “We expect big changes at the manufacturing level,” Valentine said.
A hazard analysis procedure also will be in place to assure contaminants are eliminated. “The industry will provide training for shellers and manufacturers,” he said.
A certification program also will help restore confidence in peanuts and peanut products. “It will be an international program,” Valentine said. “Jars and packages will be marked with certification labels.”
A promotion program will “minimize bad publicity” and to take a “proactive stance” for the industry.
Valentine said most peanut products are safe for consumption. “Jarred peanut butter is safe. It was not produced at PCA. And major supermarket chains have scan data so they know what's on the (contaminant) list. They've pulled those products off the shelves.”
He said only one brand of crackers was included in the widespread recall.
He also commented on the current peanut surplus and a hopeful outlook for peanut allergy treatment.
Increases in peanut exports, spurred by funds from USDA and FSA, have helped peanut markets. Since 2000, peanut exports have increased from 220,000 tons to 400,000 tons of farmer stock and few products have been recalled from export markets.
He said a “cure for peanut allergies” may be only two years away. An 18-month trial treatment program has shown that children with peanut allergy, after taking an oral immunization (extremely small amounts of peanuts), can eat up to 15 peanuts a day.
Within two years this oral immunotherapy will become “the method of treatment,” Valentine said.