ATLANTA -- Shoppers are leaving jarred peanut butter off their grocery lists, according to sales figures, even though familiar brands have not been affected by the salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds and led to one of the largest product recalls in U.S. history.
To fight the sales slump, the makers of Jif and Peter Pan have countered with a costly advertising campaign aimed at reassuring nervous eaters.
Jarred peanut butter sales during the four weeks ending Jan. 24 dropped 22 percent from the same period the previous year, according to figures compiled by The Nielsen Company, which tracks consumer purchasing decisions. The 33.8 million pounds of peanut butter includes jars sold at food, drug and mass merchandisers, but not Wal-Mart stores.
Although more recent data weren't available Monday, hundreds more products have been recalled since the period measured by Nielsen, making the peanut industry's woes even more visible to consumers. As a result, some consumers say they're avoiding peanut butter entirely.
"I just stopped because I didn't want to risk anything happening," said Kate Labrecque, 24, as she ate lunch in a downtown Atlanta park. She said she's waiting until "they put something out that says it's safe to eat stuff with peanuts."
Federal investigators have linked peanut products made at Peanut Corp. of America's southwest Georgia peanut processing plant to the salmonella outbreak that has sickened 575 people and may have caused as many as eight deaths.
On Monday, the FBI raided the plant in Blakely, Ga., hauling off boxes and other material. Agents executed search warrants at both the plant and at Peanut Corp.'s headquarters in Lynchburg, Va., according to a senior congressional aide with knowledge of the raids. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The Lynchburg, Va.-based company sold its peanut butter to institutional clients, such as nursing homes, and its peanut paste to many other companies that used it as an ingredient in products ranging from cookies and ice cream to energy bars and pet treats. While the company initially said its products weren't sold directly to consumers, it said Sunday that some of its products - including dry and honey-roasted nuts - were also sold directly to consumers at the retailers 99 Cent Stuff, 99 Cents Only Stores, Dollar General, and Dollar Tree Stores.
Leading brands of jarred peanut butter, however, aren't part of the scandal, and their makers have found themselves scrambling to spread that message to shoppers.
J.M. Smucker Co., which makes Jif peanut butter, has received about 40,000 phone calls from concerned customers since reports surfaced that the bacteria outbreak was linked to peanut butter, said spokeswoman Maribeth Badertscher.
"We're doing what we can to make sure consumers know our products are safe," she said.
Smuckers and ConAgra Foods Inc., the maker of Peter Pan, have both taken out half-page newspaper ads in papers around the country telling consumers their products are completely safe and featuring coupons for savings on a jar of their peanut butter.
"Consumers have been confused by the media and are uncertain about what products are safe," said Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for ConAgra. "We've been very clear to consumers about the safety of our products and the reasons that we can be sure our products are safe."
Those reasons - echoed by Smuckers and Skippy manufacturer Unilever - include stringent product safety and quality control measures and the fact that they do not buy any products from Peanut Corp.
But for some shoppers, those companies' efforts haven't sunk in yet.
"I have stopped totally eating or purchasing peanut products until I get more information this problem is solved," said Atlanta resident Michael Jackson, a 59-year-old printer who adds that he loves peanut butter.
"Hopefully there'll be more control over this kind of thing and it's not worth getting sick over it," said the 55-year-old hospital admissions official in Pittsburgh.
But industry officials say consumers can easily check which products are and aren't safe. In addition to the list of recalled products on the Food and Drug Administration's Web site, the American Peanut Council, an umbrella trade association that represents all segments of the U.S. peanut industry, has put a list on its own Web site of products that are safe to eat.
"The vast majority of peanut products, or products containing peanuts, are safe," said council president Patrick Archer. "If consumers have any doubt, they should check with the manufacturer."
And some consumers are doing just that.
Retirees Ray Pfeifer, 60, and his wife Kathleen, 61, had peanut butter on their grocery list when they stopped at a Giant Eagle grocery store in Pittsburgh Monday. Ray Pfeifer had checked the online listings before leaving the house and knew his preferred brand, Smuckers Natural Peanut Butter, was OK.
"I'm off peanuts but I'm not off peanut butter," he said. "I'm just looking to see where it's from."
On the Net:
American Peanut Council, http://www.peanutsusa.com
Peter Pan peanut butter, http://www.peterpanpb.com
Jif peanut butter, http://www.jif.com/home.asp
Skippy peanut butter, http://www.peanutbutter.com
Peanut Corp. of America, http://www.peanutcorp.com