Updated: Jun 26, 2022
Many of us have heard that it isn't safe to feed your bird peanuts because of the risk of aspergillosis and aflatoxins, but does that mean that peanuts are never safe?
TLDR click here.
The short answer, as it so often is, is that it depends. The idea that peanuts are always deadly is misconstrued from the scientific facts that show that peanuts (as well as several grains and certain spices, for that matter) are good hosts for aspergillum flavus (the mold that not only produces aflatoxins, a liver toxin and carcinogen, but can also lead to aspergillosis). Aspergillosis is a dangerous and hard to treat respiratory disease that can be fatal. Naturally, parrot owners want to avoid their bird developing aspergillosis at all costs, which can sometimes lead to parrot owners completely cutting out peanuts from their parrots diet. However, just because a certain raw, unprocessed food is more prone to developing certain mold or fungi does not necessarily translate to this food product being dangerous in its final “on the shelves for human consumption” form. This is dependent on the processing of the food and the safety standards that must be met for that food product, as regulated by whatever agency is in charge of monitoring for food safety (the FDA in the US).
In the US, there are FDA standards that all food manufacturers must comply with. Inspections and testing are performed regularly and the consequences for non-compliance are severe (including products being pulled from shelves, companies facing massive fines or lawsuits, etc.). In the case of peanuts (shelled or otherwise), the maximum permissible level of aflatoxins to be deemed acceptable for human consumption is 20 ppb (parts per billion). Incidentally, this is the same allowance for peanut-containing products intended for pets. It is important to note that there are different permissible levels for animal feeds not intended for pets (for example, intended for farm poultry). It is interesting that the maximum allowance of aflatoxin in other nuts intended for human consumption, for example pistachios, is identical to that of peanuts. In other words, peanuts (from the US) intended for human consumption inherently pose no greater risk of transmitting aflatoxin than other nuts. Of course, I can only speak to what I know about how the US regulates food safety, which is all through the FDA. Different countries have different agencies and therefore may have different standards.
All of that said, peanuts in the shell are very sensitive to humidity and go bad (including growing mold) rather rapidly. As such, it is important to properly store peanuts and pay special attention to make sure they aren’t going bad. Because of the propensity for peanuts in the shell to grow mold, combined with the fact that it is very difficult to control the humidity in my house, I personally choose to not feed peanuts in the shell to my parrot, Petrie. I also avoid any mixes that include peanuts in the shell. However, I have no qualms feeding Petrie Harrison’s pellets (which include ground peanut), as I know that these pellets are made in the US and are tested to meet safety and nutritional standards.
Another claim that I frequently hear is that peanuts, along with other ingredients such as corn, are only used in parrot pellets because they are cheap, making them a "filler ingredient." First of all, and I'll write more on this in another blog post, there is no such thing as a "filler ingredient." This term is not regulated and has no official definition in pet food manufacturing (it is simply a buzzword used in fear mongering marketing strategies). Furthermore, the fact that a certain ingredient is cheap does not necessarily mean that it is a lesser food in terms of nutritional quality (it usually just means that it is cheaper to grow). The notion that only more expensive ingredients provide adequate nutrition is, in my opinion, a tad classist. Peanuts are an excellent source of antioxidants and protein, are low in saturated fats, high in healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and are high in many vitamins and minerals including manganese and copper. This is perhaps one of the reasons why ground peanuts are so frequently used in parrot pellets (such as those clinically formulated by Harrison's). There are of course alternative pellets that offer similar nutritional profiles and are also friendly for human caretakers with peanut allergies.
To sum it up, this blogger feels that peanuts have a bad reputation that they only sometimes deserve. To be on the safe side, if you want to feed your parrot peanuts in the shell, make sure that they are roasted and intended for human consumption. I generally do not recommend buying seed or nut mixes that contain peanuts in the shell unless you know that the mix is from a reputable company that tests for safety and that the mix has been properly stored (and you will continue to store it properly). Foods produced in the US intended for human consumption that contain peanuts are at very little risk of being contaminated with aspergillus flavus. However, the reality is that any food or environment poses a risk to the health and wellness of our parrot companions. As always, use your judgement, but don't be so quick to judge others.
Dr. Stephanie Rosenbloom has her Ph.D. from Cornell University and has been caring for parrots her entire life. She believes that we can all benefit from asking more questions, seeking knowledge from reliable sources, and giving others the benefit of the doubt before drawing conclusions. She applies these concepts to her practice as a parrot trainer and behavior consultant.