Coffee, but no powder, please

Fear of anthrax spreads to many harmless look-alikes

October 31, 2001|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

Some airlines have stopped serving powdered coffee creamer. Walt Disney World is now using liquid soap instead of the powdered variety in restrooms throughout the theme park. A doughnut shop in Florida stopped using powdered sugar to dust its treats.

Businesses and manufacturers that deal in light-colored granular substances are having to think twice about how they handle them because of widespread fear of anthrax contamination. The challenges go beyond the universal concerns in corporate America regarding security and mail-handling since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"When you're one of the industries that manufactures white, powdery substances and that seems to be the MO of all these episodes, real or bogus, it has sensitized us to the fact that we need to be looking at everything we do so that people are not unduly concerned," said Jim Bair, spokesman for the North American Millers Association in Washington.

The group has met several times in recent weeks with food processors, grocery representatives and federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to assess procedures.

Business executives acknowledge that they haven't had much time to alter manufacturing or packaging systems. Fears of anthrax mushroomed in recent weeks after a media employee in Florida and postal workers in Washington died and others became ill after handling tainted packages.

Many businesses said they were reluctant to talk about changes, even when they were pleased that they had reduced the possibility of confusion for consumers. "We don't want to become a target," one spokeswoman said.

Giant Food Inc. reported several incidents of customers who had become alarmed by flour or other powdery substances on products, but the company investigated them on a case-by-case basis, said spokesman Jamie Miller at the Landover headquarters of the 186-store chain.

St. Paul, Minn.-based Northwest Airlines removed powdered coffee creamer from galley carts. Asiana Airlines in South Korea said it would serve it only if a passenger requested it.

"The large concern was regaining on-time performance," said Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch, referring to scares involving spilled creamer powder that had delayed two flights. The creamer ban will continue for the foreseeable future, he said. Salt and sugar use was not stopped because those crystals are more identifiable.

Candy manufacturers were also in a heightened state of vigilance, especially with Halloween spurring one of the peak sales periods of the year.

The Chocolate Manufacturers Association Web site, www.candyusa.org, for the first time includes information about why chocolate may become speckled or discolored during shipping. The association typically broadcasts such information only with law enforcement agencies, but felt a need for greater public dissemination this fall, spokeswoman Susan Smith said.

In a section titled, "What if my candy appears unusual?" the Web site describes how whitish "bloom" can form on chocolate due to temperature variations and that some candies are dusted with food starch during manufacturing, but neither case should be cause for alarm.

"We've had some calls where consumers open a package and see powder and all of a sudden are asking questions," said Rhoda Applebaum of the National Food Processors Association in Washington. "There's a heightened awareness on the issue of powders, whether it's about flour on the bottom of your hamburger bun or baby talcum powder."

Walt Disney World emptied powdered soap dispensers at the roughly 60 public restrooms at the theme park in Orlando, Fla., and installed liquid soap supplies after several false anthrax reports. Their counterparts at Disneyland in California didn't have such concerns; they stopped using powdered soap years ago, a spokesman said.

Businesses were reluctant to discuss changes, or even to try to pitch them as responses to customer concerns. For the most part, they seemed bewildered that safe substances had become an object of fear almost overnight and around the world.

"It may mean we have to be more careful about handling the pallets and cleaning up spills," said Bair of the millers association, which represents 44 grain processors. "We're trying to respond in a calming and reassuring way. It's a Herculean task. A person can choose not to fly but we've all got to eat and breathe, so we're working as diligently as we can."

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