Feds Halt Production At Sunland Plant



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Salmonella contamination led to a massive recall of products produced at Sunland Inc.'s New Mexico peanut processing plant.

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Editor's note: This story was updated to include quotes from pet companies involved in the recall and to add details to the manner in which the pet products were recalled.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday shuttered a New Mexico peanut processor linked to a salmonella outbreak and the subsequent recall of hundreds of food products, including four voluntarily pulled from shelves in the pet trade.

The shutdown of the Sunland Inc. plant in Portales, N.M., was the first of its kind under the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA noted. Forty-one people in 20 states have been sickened by Sunland products tainted with the strain salmonella Bredeney, the agency added.

The FDA issued a scathing report about the salmonella outbreak and Sunland’s culpability, including a finding that Sunland detected salmonella in nut butter samples over a 30-month period ending in September 2012 but still distributed some of the products.

Among the agency’s other discoveries:

• FDA inspections in September and October 2012 revealed salmonella on plant surfaces, in 13 nut butter samples and in a sample of raw peanuts.
• Equipment, containers and utensils used to hold and store food were improperly handled.
• Employees wiped gloved hands on their street clothes and failed to wash their hands or change gloves.
• The plant lacked hand-washing sinks in the production and packaging areas.
• Employees placed bare hands on finished peanuts.
• The same bags were used to hold raw and roasted peanuts.
• Raw in-shell peanuts were stored in uncovered trailers open to birds and rain.

Sunland CEO Jimmie Shearer, in a statement released Nov. 15, said the company was cooperating with the FDA. He denied that Sunland shipped contaminated products to consumers.

“The company has followed internal testing protocols that it believed resulted in the isolation and destruction of any product that did not pass the test designed to detect the presence of any contaminants,” Shearer said. “In every instance where test results indicated the presence of a contaminant, the implicated product was destroyed and not released for distribution.”

The company, founded in 1988 by eastern New Mexico peanut farmers, issued its first salmonella-linked recall Sept. 20 for a Trader Joe’s peanut butter. The following weeks saw more than 240 additional recalls of nut butter and peanut butter products as well as raw and roasted shelled and in-shell peanuts.

Sunland may request a hearing to start the process of reopening the plant. The company would have to submit a corrective action plan and “implement a sustainable solution to those problems in a sound scientific manner,” the FDA reported.

Four pet products were recalled despite no evidence of contamination:

• Dogsbutter from Dog for Dog of Santa Monica, Calif.
• Yoghund Organic Banana & Peanut Butter frozen yogurt dog treats from TBD Brands LLC of Exeter, N.H.
• Sleek and Sassy bird and small animal foods from Wildwood Seed & Specialties of Monroe, Ore.
• Raw and roasted in-shell peanuts and seed mixes from Magnolia Bird Farm Inc. of Anaheim, Calif.

Rocky Keever, CEO of Dog for Dog, quickly pulled all Dogsbutter manufactured from May 1 through Sept. 24, 2012, and the company is restocking shelves with peanut butter produced by another company.

“We’re going with a top-of-the-line, human-grade manufacturer that produces peanut butter of the highest quality,” he said, declining to identify the company because of competitive reasons.

“From Day One we did this voluntarily and immediately changed procedures and went with a company that’s been in business for over 80 years,” he added. “We inspected the facility and have a third-party inspector.”

TBD Brands took similar steps to distance itself from Sunland and contracted with another manufacturer, Hampton Farms in Severn, N.C., said Jody Rodgers, the treat company’s CEO and founder.

“We began searching for alternative sources of organic peanut butter the day we received notification of Sunland’s initial recall, so this recent development has no impact on us going forward,” she said.

The news of Sunland’s problems was devastating, Rodgers said.

“This was our first, and hopefully our only, brush with a recall,” she said. “I realize it is not uncommon these days, but everyone hopes it never happens to their products. It’s difficult to take in stride when you formulate your products and build your reputation on being healthy and, in this case, organic.”

Distributors and retailers have been understanding and cooperative, she added.

“Financially it’s been a tough blow, but there were no incidents of sick pets, and that’s the most important thing,” she said.

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