For the Birds Radio Program: Peanuts and Salmonella
Salmonella in peanuts One of the big stories in the past two weeks has been the nationwide outbreak of salmonella thanks to a single peanut processing factory, the Peanut Corporation of America, which was knowingly selling peanut products even after some of their products had tested positive for salmonella. More than 1500 labeled products for human consumption may be contaminated, and it’s extremely difficult to track down which peanut products are safe with the one exception of peanut butter made by the major brands that do their own processing. The Food and Drug Administration has a searchable list which you can find linked on the blog of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to ensure that products you buy are reasonably safe. But that list is still growing. If it’s difficult to sort out which human foods are potentially toxic, it’s impossible to sort out which bird foods may be. There are fairly strict regulations protecting humans, pets, and livestock from dangerous food items. But there are absolutely no regulations regarding foods sold for wild birds. Peanuts can harbor the salmonella bacterium, which is bad enough—salmonella outbreaks at bird feeding stations kill a lot of birds virtually every year, usually caused by natural outbreaks of this common soil bacteria. But peanuts can also harbor a fungus that produces extremely poisonous substances called aflatoxins. And aflatoxins are heat stable, so whether the food has been frozen or cooked, even if the fungus dies the poisons it already produced continue to exist. Even a small amount of aflatoxins can kill a healthy adult human or horse, so food sold for us and our pets and livestock must be regularly and thoroughly screened. But peanuts sold for birds don’t need to be screened, and when a batch of peanuts intended for humans or pets does fail the tests, some unscrupulous growers may sell it as wild bird food, which is highly unethical but perfectly legal. Ever since I started researching bird diseases for my book 101 Ways to Help Birds, I stopped buying any bird seed mixtures that contain peanuts. In my mind, it’s shameful that companies oppose any proposed requirements that they get their products screened for such a common and dangerous substance. Until they can guarantee that their peanuts are safe, I buy any peanuts for my birds at the grocery store. With the economy sinking closer and closer to an outright and devastating depression, a handful of people seem to already be jettisoning fundamental values of a civilized society. It’s mystifying how the Peanut Corporation of America could have continued to sell their products for over a year after they tested positive for salmonella, knowing it would surely make human beings sick and even kill some. As the human population continues to mushroom and companies grow ever less centralized and accountable, these kinds of events will grow ever more common unless we start imposing stiff criminal penalties on company executives responsible for what happens on their watch. And even during the best of times, people value wild birds far below human beings, so it just makes sense when buying a product as associated with both toxic bacteria and funguses as peanuts are to make sure they’ve been screened. We have not just a right but the obligation to demand that the food we put out for our chickadees and other birds isn’t going to hurt them. This salmonella outbreak will soon subside and we’ll start focusing on other issues. But peanuts will always be dangerous for birds until we require the same level of screening that we do for peanuts sold for pet food and horse feed.