The headline in last Friday’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer read, "Local Food Banks Go Peanut-Free." A main supplier to food banks in the Puget Sound region, Food Lifeline, has decided to quarantine all peanut products "rather than try to keep up with the flood of U.S. Department of Agriculture or Food and Drug Administration recall alerts."
In a similar story, the Detroit Free Press reports confusion at a Meijer store in Royal Oak, Michigan, where a reporter sought to buy a product containing peanut butter, but the cashier couldn’t ring it up. The cashier told the reporter, "Oh, the computer said this one’s recalled. It’s got that peanut butter in it. I don’t know why it’s still on the shelf — shouldn’t be, but the computer won’t let those through."
As we have previously reported, the FDA has provided some great tools, including a web-widget, and both a list of recalled peanut products and the American Peanut Council has a list of products unaffected by the recall. What the reports out of Seattle and Detroit indicate, however, is that even in a world where information can move at web-speed, there is still wisdom in the old Mark Twain quote, "A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." When we’re talking about what parents are putting in their kids’ lunchboxes, the level of certainty required feels very different from any legal standard.
On February 5, Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition of the FDA, testified before the Senate Agriculture Commmittee. His advice for consumers was cautious in the extreme.
Consumers are urged to check this web page to determine which products have been recalled and to become aware of new recalls as they are announced. Any product that is on the recall list should be disposed of in a safe manner. Consumers are also urged to wash their hands after handling potentially contaminated products. If consumers are unsure whether a peanut-containing product is potentially contaminated, they should avoid consuming it until they obtain more information about the product. Persons who think they may have become ill from eating peanut products are advised to consult their health care providers
(emphasis supplied). When the man in charge of food safety is sending the message to consumers that they should be watching out for themselves, it will be hard for any food bank volunteer or grocery store clerk to do more than what we have seen Food Lifeline and Meijer do.
On a personal note, my wife was a volunteer at the Fremont Public Association food bank (now Solid Ground) for many years. She taught me that peanut butter has always been a critical staple for food banks, providing a good source of protein, particularly to the many food bank customers who don’t have cooking facilities, as well as to vegetarians and vegans. There isn’t much I can do personally to deal with the problems caused by this crisis, but what I am doing is writing a nice check to Solid Ground.