Nutty about Peanuts.

January 20, 2009 By Alan J. Salzberg
Visiting South Carolina this weekend, I picked up an old Southern favorite from Publix: peanut butter cookies (I didn't see my real favorite: boiled peanuts). No sooner had I returned home than my Mom admonished me for buying them, because they were unsafe, and possibly tainted with Salmonella.


Sure enough, there was an article in The State confirming the outbreak. So far, around 500 people around the country have been sickened (and possibly 6 deaths) from what is believed to be contaminated peanuts. USA Today confirms the continuing "epidemic" today. While these figures seem high, 500 people sickened with food poisoning in a period of four months, across the entire U.S., is hardly a risk worth mentioning. According to, the number of incidents of food poisoning or sickness is 200,000 a day. OK, you might say, but Salmonella is pretty serious and if you don't take antibiotics you might be laid up for several days. Fine, but the same site says that there are about 1.4 million cases of Salmonella annually, or about 3,835 a day (the CDC says about 40,000 cases are reported annually, but that there are many more unreported).


So why are we getting exercised about a mere 4 cases a day, as with the current outbreak? My best answer is that 1) it makes for interesting news, 2) any problem that affects so broadly a population, even with minuscule or infinitesimal risk, is seen by reporters as being important, and 3) people cannot easily assess their relative risk.


As for me, I explained to my Mom that I'm not too concerned, and quickly had a peanut butter cookie before she could run back to the store. After waiting a day or so to make sure I was Salmonella-free, the rest of the family followed. ;-)