Texas and New Mexico peanut growers may get a break after a peanut butter plant closed by a salmonella outbreak last fall was given the go ahead last week to start accepting Valencia peanuts under an agreement reached in court that ends a standoff between plant officials and federal regulators over cleanup issues.
Conditions at the Sunland, Inc., plant near Portales, New Mexico, were described as “startling” by U.S. Food and Drug (FDA) inspectors in November when a possible rodent problem and uncovered storage of peanuts in containers had allowed rainfall and bird droppings to contaminate the raw peanuts. Other problems were found throughout the plant including bacterial infestations that eventually resulted in the decision to close the plant. The incident was being blamed for a widespread outbreak of salmonella poisoning that sickened as many as 42 people in 20 states last year.
Last week a consent decree was filed in a New Mexico federal court that clears the way for Sunland to reopen and put its employees back to work if it meets certain conditions, including hiring an independent consulting firm charged with developing a satisfactory sanitation plan that must be approved by the FDA. Once that plan is approved and cleanup operations take place and the plant can pass a re-inspection, Sunland will be cleared to once again start stockpiling farmer-raised peanuts from across the region.
The plant closure was devastating to peanut farmers in West Texas and eastern New Mexico as it occurred just after fall harvest. The move threatened to destroy hopes of a successful farming year for most of the region’s growers who traditionally sell to the plant. Farmers along the New Mexico-Texas border should have been celebrating one of the best harvests in recent memory. Instead, millions of pounds of their prized sweet Valencia peanuts have been sitting in barns at the peanut butter plant that has been shuttered since November.
In the gourmet food company's Nov. 12 fiscal first-quarter release, the company re-accounted its September and October recalls of products containing Sunland ingredients. But those numbers changed after the FDA said inspectors found samples of salmonella in 28 different locations in the plant, in 13 nut butter samples and in one sample of raw peanuts, causing the long and unexpected closure. In addition, inspectors found improper handling of the products, unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside the facility. Inspectors also said employees did not have access to hand-washing sinks, and dirty hands had direct contact with ready-to-package peanuts.
The Sunland plant is the largest organic peanut butter producer in the country. The FDA used a new rule that granted them authority for the first time to revoke the company's operating certificate without a court hearing. The FDA says the action was taken as a result of the “serious threat” the plant posed to the public.
Last week’s filing reinstates Sunland's food facility registration but the company cannot process or distribute food from its peanut butter or peanut mill plants in Portales until it has complied with the consent decree's requirements and receives written authorization from the FDA, a process that could take up to two weeks, depending on results of the inspection.
Once the company's peanut butter hits stores again, critics warn it will be difficult for consumers to identify it since Sunland's products are often packaged under store brand names.