With Iron Curtain Sundered, Peanut Butter Oozes East

THE popularity of peanut butter is spreading worldwide: Saudi Arabia has become the largest export market for American peanut butter. Interest is growing in Malaysia. Sales are steady in Japan. Inroads are being made in Poland and Hungary.

But the hottest spot for peanut butter may be the former Soviet Union.

United States companies see a humanitarian as well as a sales opportunity in helping the newly independent republics, some of which have recently experienced severe food shortages.

Peanut butter is being marketed as a "protein substitute" there, an alternative to costly - and scarce - meat. (Peanuts are not nuts; they are legumes, like beans and peas.) Industry officials hope that Russian consumers will take to peanut butter as a nutritious, low-cost, easy-to-store food. It's also being promoted as something that has long been a favorite with American children.

In February, Procter & Gamble launched a peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich airlift to Ukraine. The Cincinnati-based company donated 4,000 jars of Jif peanut butter; Kroger Company gave 3,600 jars of strawberry preserves; and Klosterman Baking Company of Springfield, Ohio, donated enough flour to bake 10,000 loaves of bread. The ingredients made for approximately 100,000 sandwiches for youngsters in Kharkov, Cincinnati's sister city.

In June, the Peanut Council of America shipped 30 tons of peanut butter to Moscow, sending it to orphanages through the Moscow Children's Fund. At the same time, they conducted taste tests: Some 2,000 Russians tried peanut butter slathered on local bread (some with jelly, some without). And 95.5 percent of them said they liked it, says Jeanette Anderson, executive director of the National Peanut Council of America.

"We're moving ahead to pursue trying to get the government to buy it for the school lunch program," Ms. Anderson says. Commercial sales are a medium- to long-term goal.

The "serious promotional efforts" of the council go beyond finding a new market for a US export, says Wayne Lord, a board member of the National Peanut Council of America. "Not to exaggerate the role of peanut butter, but what we're doing is central to what is happening in Russia," says Mr. Lord, who has a doctorate in Russian studies. "It is a market opportunity for the peanut industry, and [for Russia and other republics] it's an opportunity to evaluate an alternative source of protein at a time when t hey need it."

"Our industry has seen that receptivity is there and they know the peanut taste in baked goods and candy and it does have such potential practical use," Lord says. Russians have excellent breads, he points out, and because bread is part of the daily diet, peanut butter makes sense.

"We sincerely believe it is a product made for Russia because of its various characteristics," Lord concludes.

In November, Peanut Council delegates will return to Russia, this time to St. Petersburg, with 15 tons of peanut butter donated by Skippy.

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