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New research from The Nielsen Company says that “during the four-week period ending February 21, 2009, sales of jarred peanut butter fell to $87.2 million, down 2.3 percent from the same period in 2008.” The reason – there remains considerable consumer trepidation about peanut butter consumption because of the salmonella outbreak connected to peanut butter and paste emanating from factories owned by Peanut Corp. of America (PCA). Jarred peanut butter has not been implicated in the outbreak, but has been feeling the effects nevertheless - close to 42 million pounds of peanut butter were sold during that four-week period, down more than 13 percent from a year ago – the lowest number of pounds of peanut butter sold during any four-week period in the past three years.

“While most brands of peanut butter - including the name brands that many consumers know and enjoy - were not subject to recall, the coverage the outbreak received has caused consumers to exercise an abundance of caution with respect to buying this product. The fact is that these brands are safe and should benefit once consumers recognize that the safety of these and most jarred peanut butters were not in question,” said Todd Hale, Senior Vice President, Consumer & Shopper Insights at Nielsen.

The Georgia Peanut Commission, by the way, is saying that the salmonella outbreak is likely to cost the nation’s peanut producers $1 billion in lost sales and production. More than 2,100 products have been recalled because of the outbreak, which has sickened close to 700 people and may have caused nine deaths.

KC's View:
Some of this is normal caution, since consumers tend to be an impressionable lot.

However, this also can be attributed to the fact that – best I can tell, though it hardly is a complete sample – a number of the retailers I have visited in recent weeks have not done a very good job of communicating with consumers about what is safe and what is not. Sure, they’ve participated in recalls … but they’ve hardly been transparent and aggressive in their communications with retailers. (I saw an endcap just a few days ago that was loaded with peanut butter, but nary a sign addressing the headlines that nobody has been able to avoid. This strikes me as being naïve, at best.)

Peanut butter manufacturers have done a good job in communicating via advertising, but retailers ought to be more pro-active in their support of the category … especially because it firmly would position them as advocates for the shopper.

Funny thing. The Nielsen story carried a headline that said, “Peanut Butter Sales Still Stuck.” But I thought it said, “Peanut Butter Sales Still Suck.” Which surprised me, because that didn’t seem very Nielsen-like to me.

Of course, when I read it the second time, I saw what it really said. Though my original impression would have been just as accurate, if not more so.