FDA: Violations uncovered at Sunland's peanut plant

At least 41 sickened this summer

Health officials have found more clues about the nut product contamination that lead to at least 41 people getting sick this summer.

Conditions at the Sunland, Inc. facility in Portales, N.M., may have contributed to the contamination of peanut butter and almond butter products with salmonella bredeney, according to new observations posted on the Food and Drug Administration website Thursday. These conditions were observed during inspections of the facility that took place between September 17 and October 16.

Federal investigators determined that between June 2009 and August 2012, Sunland cleared -- and in some cases distributed -- peanut or almond butter products from 11 different lots, even though internal testing showed the presence of the salmonella bacteria.

Samples analyzed by the FDA also found salmonella that did not show up in Sunland's internal testing. FDA inspectors found the bacteria in nearly 30 environmental samples.

Investigators determined Sunland employees did not properly handle equipment, utensils and containers used to hold and store food. They say there were no sinks to wash hands in the production or packaging area. They also noted that employees handled ready-to-package peanuts with their bare hands.

According to the FDA, there were no records providing proof that production equipment was cleaned, and the same bags were used to store both raw and roasted peanuts. Raw peanuts were also found outside the facility in open trailers exposed to birds and rain.

"FDA has inspected the Sunland facility multiple times over the past several years, to help ensure compliance with food safety guidelines," said Pat El-Hinnawy, a spokeswoman for the organization. "These inspections have not only uncovered several violations of FDA food safety requirements, they have also helped limit the impact of the company's contaminated product. In March 2012, FDA was proactive in issuing salmonella sampling guidance for industry, to help reduce the presence of this pathogen in the U.S. food supply. It is the responsibility of food producers and processors to put into practice the steps laid out in the guidance."

Sunland first voluntarily recalled their almond butter and peanut butter products on Sept. 24, 2012. On Oct. 4, they expanded the recall to include all products made in that plant after March 1, 2010. To date Sunland has recalled a total of 240 products. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 41 people have been infected in 20 states, most recently New York, North Carolina and Virginia.

On Thursday, the company's president and CEO Jimmie Shearer issued a statement on their website addressing the FDA's latest inspection report, saying in part:

"At no time in its twenty four year history has Sunland, Inc. released for distribution any products that it knew to be potentially contaminated with harmful microorganisms. 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. In every instance where test results indicated the presence of a contaminant, the implicated product was destroyed and not released for distribution. The Company believed at all times that its response was sufficiently robust such that any product which might be contaminated was isolated and destroyed."

Shearer says they plan to continue cooperating with the FDA and have already submitted a response to the agency addressing each issue of concern.

While the number of new cases is declining, health officials still caution consumers to avoid eating any of these products, especially children under age 5, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

Since these products have a long shelf life, they could still be in people's homes. A complete list of recalled products can be found at http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ .

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