At first glance, the European Union’s threat to raise the tariff on peanut butter as a response to President Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs seems a bit like punishing a toddler by forbidding them to read “War and Peace.”
The spread, nearly ubiquitous in the United States, barely registers beyond North America. As Northwestern marketing professor Brian Sternthal put it to the HuffPost, “in many parts of the world, peanut butter is regarded as an unpalatable American curiosity.” One New Yorker writer described his acquaintances from Northern Ireland responding to his jars of Skippy with disgust, “as if peanuts were synonymous with maggots.” In a 1981 essay, William F. Buckley Jr., described the students at his British boarding school tasting the nutty treat, then spitting it out. (No wonder, he wrote, “they needed help to win the war.")
As a result, it can be tough to get a Jif fix outside the USA. “Finding peanut butter abroad is nearly impossible,” one Vice article declared. “Just about every country has peanuts, and just about every country has blenders. Why is it so desperately difficult to find real-deal peanut butter outside of the US? Blame local tastes that just don’t understand the American yen.”
Of course, it’s not impossible to find the spread in grocery stores, particularly in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands (where it’s known, affectionately as “peanut cheese"). Even so, the market is tiny. In 2012, the average European ate less than one tablespoon of U.S. peanut butter a year. The average American, meanwhile, enjoys more than four pounds. Peanut butter makes up just 7 percent of all peanut products sold by the United States to the E.U. each year.
So it’s hard to imagine the tariff on peanut butter having much of an impact on peanut butter makers, or farmers or even Europeans.
But maybe that’s not really the point. Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, explains it this way. “If you look at the list of products, they’re very iconic American products,” he said. “Peanut butter certainly fits into that list.”
Put another way: “The Europeans are looking to make their response no more than proportional,” said Benn Steil, a trade expert with the Council on Foreign Relations. “To make it clear that this is unacceptable, but also clear that they do not want to escalate.”
Peanut butter certainly does have an American history. It was invented in the Midwest in the 1890s. It began its life as a high-end treat, enjoyed in sanitariums as a health food. Then, big companies figured out how to streamline production. Meanwhile, Southern farmers were encouraged to cultivate peanut crops after the boll weevil decimated cotton production.
By the 1920s, peanut butter had become nearly ubiquitous, thanks to mass production and the development of hydrogenation, which meant the spread could keep. During the Great Depression, peanut butter sandwiches were handed out on food lines. By midcentury, it had become a billion-dollar staples in the United States, produced by the likes of ConAgra and Procter & Gamble.
Today, half of all peanuts grown in the United States are transformed into peanut butter. Two of our Presidents (Thomas Jefferson and Jimmy Carter) were peanut farmers. The average American schoolchild will eat 1,500 peanut butter sandwiches before high school graduation.