Peanut Alert

By Dina Eliash Robinson

The outbreak of salmonella typhimurium at the Blakely, Ga.-based Peanut Corporation of America in mid-2008 either completely slipped by the private inspector hired and paid by the company to check the safety of its products—a practice allowed because of the dire shortage of FDA inspectors—or was ignored because of conflict of interest. According to a Washington Post report, even after Peanut Corp. knew its products were contaminated, it sold 32 truckloads of them to the federal government for its free lunch program offered to the children of low income families.

Since it took a while for federal investigators to track back the contamination to its source, so much of the toxic products had already been shipped to customers, that their belated recall—one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history—could not prevent some of them from sickening hundreds and killing several people throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Even though the company is in effect out of business, investigations continue and media warnings keep popping up about salmonella-contaminated peanuts and peanut ingredients embedded in various food products still being sold in stores and lurking in consumers’ pantries.

Our advice:
1) Stay away from peanuts and peanut butter regardless of brands—at least for now.
2) Read labels carefully and avoid products that contain peanut oil and other ingredients derived from this legume (yes, legume—in spite of the word “…nut” in its name). These can be found in baked goods, soups, Thai and other Asian foods, cereals, salad dressings, candy, power- or ‘health’ bars, frozen desserts (such as ice-cream), snacks (trail-mix, etc.), dog food and other edibles.
3) Substitute almonds/almond butter and/or walnuts/walnut butter (preferably organic) for peanut products. Not only because of the recent (and we hope temporary) salmonella scare, but because peanuts are a problematic food to begin with, as noted below. Even if you are addicted to this particular source of protein and the comfort foods made with it, I promise you won’t need to join a 12-step program or gear up your willpower to switch to almonds and walnuts for your snack fix. A taste of either of these highly nutritious tree nuts—raw, roasted, creamed into butter or used to lend pizzazz to other foods—is usually enough to convert most food lovers to these healthier choices.

The Problematic Peanut
Our research reveals that the subterranean peanut grows in soil that is “a primary source” of a fungus and parasite (Aspergillus Flavus and A. Parasiticus) that produce highly carcinogenic aflatoxins. What’s more, as soon as the peanuts emerge from their earth-womb, they seem to become irresistible to mold spores—some of which survive shelling and even the roasting process. And as if this wasn’t enough, this hapless plant also has to deal with the powerful and highly toxic fungicides farmers use to keep their peanut crops marketable.

Sorting through scientific papers and comparing opposing views on the safety and nutritional value of peanuts made me wonder whether peanut allergy might not even be an allergy at all, but simply the human body’s protective reaction to toxic fungi and mold?

Now here is a topic with which scientists could qualify for generous grants. If any of you reading this are already working on a peanut-related medical mystery, please tell the rest of us about it—just drop a line to [email protected]. Or would you be interested in rescuing a bunch of kids afflicted with peanut allergy from being used as guinea pigs in an experiment intended to cure them through daily feedings of slowly increased doses of peanuts? But I digress…

A National Calamity
While food contaminations are not always avoidable (think of the norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships, that so far have defied the greatest prevention efforts), they certainly should not be evermore frequent, virulent, fast spreading and far-reaching—as they are today. The safety- and quality-control of the United States food supply is fast becoming a national calamity, due to the antiquated, fragmented and largely broken government system to which we are foolishly entrusting the safety of our food and water.

Shared Blame
We The People are, however, equally responsible for the dire state of our food and water (un)safety—through our inattention to the problem, reluctance to actively contribute solutions, and above all, through the choices we make about what we eat. Many of us even react differently to news of tainted foods. Compare, for example, consumers’ over-reaction to the occasional, localized and limited recalls of fresh produce, to their under-reaction to this recent, massive and nationwide peanut recall. Remember when entire spinach and tomato crops had to be destroyed because people were afraid to touch them? Now check out your fellow supermarket shoppers and see them reach for their favorite brand of peanut butter, oblivious to ongoing media warnings about the possibility that some salmonella-tainted peanut products might still be in stores. Could it be that peanut addiction is more powerful than the instinct for self-preservation?

Necessary—Though Not Always Fun
We The People are weighed down with to-do lists, distractions and economic woes. Not much energy left for the most important thing: Protecting our and loved ones’ health and lives. It’s really a pain in our busy schedules to read labels, be forced to weigh choices, bone up on what’s safe or toxic among unintelligible ingredients, make countless decisions, pay attention, avoid falling for misleading promotions, and on…

But hey! What’s the alternative?

Blessings from all of us here at the Free Range Club — we’re confident you have what it takes to stay well.

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