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I Was a Victim of the Peanut Butter Recall

image of Scott Dodd
Peanut butter
The author is getting hungry just looking at this.

Our online editor first wrote about his favorite food being the subject of a recall back in 2009. Every year or two, we (unfortunately) get another chance to unearth his lament when a fresh outbreak strikes. This week, a recall that started with Trader Joe's has now spread to dozens of products due to salmonella poisoning.

Yesterday my wife forwarded me an "Important Announcement Regarding Your Recent Purchase of Peanut Butter" that she got from Fresh Direct, the online grocery service here in New York City.

This was not a good e-mail.

As my wife will tell you, peanut butter is very important to me. She even mentioned it in our wedding vows. If I had to choose one thing to eat for the rest of my life, it wouldn't even be a close contest -- peanut butter would top the list. And why not? Compared to a lot of the other things that I love to eat (I'm looking at you, bacon), it's not even that bad for me. Unless, of course, it's packed with salmonella.

"Dear Valued Customer," the Fresh Direct e-mail started, "We are writing because you recently purchased a product affected by a newly expanded recall announced by the Food and Drug Administration."

I really didn't like where this was going. Turns out, the tub of "Freshly Ground Peanut Butter, Honey-Roasted" that we ordered a week ago is now on the FDA's list of recalled products. The e-mail instructed us not to eat it and to throw it out immediately (and, appropriately, offered us a refund).

Unfortunately, I can work my way through a container of peanut butter pretty quickly, so there was almost nothing left for us to throw out.

Chances are, the peanut butter was just fine, and so am I. But it's a scary reminder of how vulnerable we are to problems in the nation's industrial food chain. Somehow, when you buy freshly ground peanut butter from a grocery service in New York City, you aren't expecting it to be connected to a processing plant in Blakely, Georgia. But that's the way our world works.

I've tried in recent years, after reading books such as Fast Food Nation and Omnivore's Dilemma, to be more aware and conscious of the food that I eat and where it comes from. My wife and I try to buy organic as much as possible, and we love getting the fresh produce at the farmer's markets around New York City. We even joined a veggie co-op two summers ago, and I came to really enjoy visiting the church basement where the veggies were delivered once a week and picking out our share (although I have to say, I got a little tired of the endless string of lettuce). 

But when it comes to peanut butter ... well, for me, it's always in season, and I don't pay much attention to where it's coming from -- although clearly, I should.

And so should the FDA. This peanut butter recall has been yet another reminder that the FDA, like so many other government watchdog agencies, was "one of many hobbled by the Bush administration's antiregulatory efforts," as a New York Times editorial put it yesterday. The folks over at Food and Water Watch also criticize the FDA for its handling of the matter. (And of course, peanut butter isn't the only place where the FDA has been found lacking, as an effort to get the agency to ban the chemical BPA from food packaging shows.)

If you want to see how badly the nation's system of safeguards has been decimated, look no further than Deepest Cuts, a report from NRDC (which publishes OnEarth) that evaluated the state of environmental and health monitoring programs at the end of the Bush administration in five key areas: air, water, food safety, toxic substances and human health.

The report authors found "a disturbing and pervasive pattern of program and funding cuts that make it impossible for programs to fulfill their monitoring role. ... These cutbacks will keep us in the dark about threats to our health."

I certainly can't say that I was completely in the dark when I bought my honey-roasted peanut butter last week, but I guess, like so many people, I had the impression that someone was looking out for me. For our industrialized, highly networked food system to work, someone needs to be.

In the meantime, I guess I'm just going to have to cut back on my peanut butter consumption. Somehow.

image of Scott Dodd
Scott Dodd is the editorial director of NRDC, which publishes OnEarth. He was a newspaper reporter for 12 years, contributing to coverage of Hurricane Katrina that won a Pulitzer Prize, and has written for Scientific American, Slate, and other public... READ MORE >
The Skippy recall was felt all the way uptown, too. Imagine what the lack of ready-made peanut butter + jelly sandwiches does to a bunch of grad student during midterms week (on a Monday at that). The sandwiches are back in stock--thank goodness--after two days of empty shelves. But, on a more serious note, this recall is like you said, a good reminder of the many issues facing the industrial food chain. It begs the larger questions of improving food safety measurements and access to nutritional food, and even theoretical questions about food surplus. Are the nation's crop surpluses due to maldistribution or underconsumption?
I can imagine the horror. Peanut butter got me through school, too. Good luck with midterms!