The recall of scores of peanut products linked to a Georgia processing plant contaminated with salmonella has had little direct impact on event caterers, but has once again raised consumer skittishness about food safety, a Special Events survey reveals. Some 600 Americans have been sickened by bulk-shipped contaminated peanuts, peanut butter and peanut paste from Peanut Corp. of America, based in Blakely, Ga. National brands of peanut butter are not implicated, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports.
FEW PEANUT PRODUCTS
Nearly 85 percent of caterers responding to the Special Events poll, distributed last week, say they have not had to dump any peanut-based inventory, with most noting that they rarely use peanut butter with the occasional exception of satay sauces.
"We use some peanut butter for baking cookies, which I tossed," notes Locke Johnston, executive chef with Philadelphia-based Feastivities Catering. "But for all other applications, we grind our own for a better, fresher product."
Indeed, some caterers were already avoiding peanut products entirely. "We actually stay away from peanuts, peanut butter and peanut oil unless it is specifically requested," notes Jerry Edwards, CPCE, head of Timonium, Md.-based Chef's Expressions. With so many consumers reporting food allergies, "We really feel it is irresponsible to endanger people at large functions with a product that could inadvertently get into their food."
Lee Gregory, executive vice president of San Francisco-based McCall Catering, agrees: "Any events with children these days are peanut-free."
But frightening food news--coming on the heels last year of contamination of jalapeno peppers and the 2006 headlines about contaminated fresh spinach--has many clients skittish about food safety.
Nearly a quarter of respondents tell Special Events that the peanut scare has changed how they write menus, and nearly 40 percent say that clients are concerned about food safety.
After dumping peanut-based products used for its contract dining clients, Chicago-based Jewell Events Catering has been closely monitoring the FDA and Centers for Disease Control Web sites. The FDA provides an updated list of recalled peanut products. "Due to the FDA’s daily updates of recalled or contaminated peanut products, we remain cautious and will not offer these menu items until the source of the contamination has been isolated and all products are cleared for safe consumption," notes senior catering and event consultant Tamara M. Goldstein. "We simply cannot risk the health, safety and welfare of our clients."
"Our clients are not in a panic mode," notes Patrick Cuccaro, general manager of Atlanta-based Affairs to Remember. "But as the recall widens, their concerns grow exponentially. There is an unstated concern/fear with them that, due to historical performance, the FDA is inept. One of our clients stated, “Nobody in their right mind would take a chance with it. Why should we?'"
In the wake of the peanut scare, some caterers are stressing safe food-handling practices throughout their operations. "It is our strict policy--and we strongly recommend that all caterers use the same guiding principles--that we do business solely with established distributors who have a specific, written protocol in place for food recalls," Cuccaro says. "During the tomato recall, we watched carefully all the information that we were receiving from different distributors, and if the information didn’t reconcile, we quickly put a discovery process in place to ascertain the reason. Several key people--not just one; redundancy here is important--in our organization are on the e-mail distribution list of these distributors."
Cuccaro adds, "We specifically do not accept any back-door deliveries. I am astounded at the reputable chefs in Atlanta who, under the mantra of 'local/fresh/sustainable,' accept food product from suppliers who have no food safety systems in place, such as the classic mushroom forager who shows up on the back step. This might sound great on the menu, but it does nothing to sustain the safety of our valued clients."
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