BLAKELY, Ga. – More than a half-century ago, residents of rural Early County erected a stone monument topped by an oversize peanut on the courthouse square here as a tribute to the region’s signature product.
In this self-proclaimed “Peanut Capital of the World,” people credit peanuts with the area’s growth and prosperity, and now they fear the fallout from the salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 500 people and prompted nationwide recalls of more than 1,000 products will have a devastating impact on their livelihood.
“Peanuts have been the cornerstone of our rural community,” said Hilary Halford, president of the Blakely-Early County Chamber of Commerce. “We grew up here with the nostalgic smell of peanuts. When they are being harvested, it smells like peanuts everywhere.
“It’s a way of life here,” she said, “and it would be devastating if there is a long-term impact from this.”
Farmers, already hit hard by high fuel costs that affected production, said contracts for next season’s crop have been slow coming in from processing companies and manufacturers, leaving them unable to determine how many, if any, peanuts to plant in May.
Most of the approximately 50 employees at Peanut Corp. of America, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has pinpointed as the source of the salmonella outbreak, have been laid off, exacerbating unemployment in an area already hit hard by the recession.
“We’re in hot water,” Blakely Mayor Ric Hall said of the county, where the median household income is about $26,000 a year. “We’re already struggling with high poverty and a struggling agricultural economy, and this will impact not just our community, but this entire region of the state.”
Though Hall said Peanut Corp. was a “small niche” player in the peanut industry, the controversy has cast a shadow over the town that has long taken pride in its peanut production. The shutdown, he said, has come at a time when Georgia-Pacific, the county’s largest employer, is laying off at least 100 workers from its paper production plant.
As national attention has focused on Blakely, the county seat with about 5,700 people, leaders have tried to paint a positive picture of the region. Three other peanut plants in the county, they point out, have had no problems.
Still, the massive food recall, which the FDA said is the largest in memory, worries many South Georgia communities such as Blakely, where the peanut industry is central to the economy. Georgia produces 45 percent of the nation’s peanuts, a $2 billion a year industry, according to the Georgia Peanut Commission.
“Everybody is looking at us, thinking that we are unsanitary people, and we’re not,” said John Freeman, a 19-year-old college student who earns money during the summer shelling and loading peanuts. “One company shouldn’t put a label on the whole town.”
Others have expressed anger at Peanut Corp. for tainting an industry that they said is committed to producing safe products. The company is accused of knowingly shipping bulk quantities of salmonella-contaminated products – dry-roasted and oil-roasted peanuts, granulated peanuts, peanut meal, peanut butter and peanut paste – and now is the target of a criminal investigation by the Food and Drug Administration and the Justice Department.
“We’ve got an industry that has a good track record, and now we have a small processor that did something wrong and caused chaos for everyone,” said Don Koehler, executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission. “Because of this, farmers are having a difficult time obtaining peanut contracts for 2009, consumers are confused, and the ripple effect is being felt throughout the peanut industry. This is unconscionable.”
Hall is hoping that the peanut scare will subside, just as fears have over other recalled foods.
“When they found salmonella in spinach, peppers and tomatoes, people said they would never eat them again, and guess what? We’re right back in there eating salads,” the mayor said. “I think the same thing will happen with peanuts.”
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