Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Peanut Industry wants help too.

The battered peanut industry has a new message: Peanuts are safe to eat, and there's a law in the works to make them even safer. So have a handful.

With more than 3,400 peanut products recalled in the outbreak linked to Peanut Corp. of America, a rattled public is buying less of them. One analyst puts the economic damage at $1 billion.

The effort by farmers and food manufacturers is part of a delicate strategy: Backing new federal food safety rules to help reassure consumers, while opposing steps they think go too far. It also illustrates a hard lesson learned by groups that find themselves in Congress' crosshairs: It is better to help lawmakers shape regulations than to let others do it for you.

The nation's 10,000 peanut growers get nearly $1 billion a year for their crops, with products like peanut butter and candy generating billions more, according to Stanley Fletcher, a University of Georgia agriculture professor specializing in peanuts.

Fletcher estimates farmers alone could lose $500 million this year from the salmonella crisis, with an additional $500 million lost in overall economic activity. That makes tougher safety standards an easier sell to an industry which might otherwise resist.

"A safer product means higher consumer confidence. Higher consumer confidence means they sell more product," said Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., whose state is the nation's largest peanut producer.

Farmers have gone to Washington to lobby Congress and the Obama administration. They've asked them to buy more peanut butter for federal feeding programs and to change a government program they say is driving peanut prices down. But the main focus is on safety.

"If they really want to protect their industry, they should support tougher oversight," said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union.

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