Sunland, Inc., has announced that most of the workers laid off after the company’s Portales, New Mexico, peanut butter mill was shuttered last September following a recall of organic peanut butter products are now back at work.

Suspension of operations at the plant were ordered after the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) reported inspections at the facility indicated products from the plant may have been associated with a salmonella outbreak that caused 41 illnesses in 20 states. The company is the largest organic peanut butter processor in the nation and produces both organic and non-organic products at the Portales facility.

The incident developed at a critical time for Eastern New Mexico and Western Texas Valencia peanut farmers. A healthy and abundant crop of peanuts was being harvested at about the time the plant was closed, leaving many peanut growers in a quandary.

“This all happened at a really bad time for us,” reports Texas peanut grower Brent Nelson of Sudan. “Our peanut harvest was one of the best we have had, and not just for me but for most peanut farmers across the region. We depend on the Portales plant and don’t have a lot of options for selling our crop.”

Nelson is one of many producers who still haven’t been paid for the 2012 crop, though the peanuts have been delivered to Sunland. But he is quick to point out that the plant has made every effort to secure funding to pay at least a portion for nuts delivered to the plant.

“A number of friends who delivered peanuts to the plant have received at least a partial payment and I believe I will also see payment in the days ahead. This whole thing caught everybody by surprise and couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” he added.

Nelson says he has heard talk that accuses the FDA of taking the action “to set an example” and said he believes the problem may not have been as widespread or “as big a deal” as early reports indicate.

Some FDA charges were 'superficial'

Among other violations, FDA claims they discovered peanuts inside uncovered truck trailers at the plant that were subject to the open elements and in at least some cases were exposed to bird droppings.

“Just a few days before that these peanuts were laying exposed in the field,” Nelson points out. “Like it or not, that’s part of farming. You can’t control the rain from falling or the birds that fly over a field.”

Peanut growers who normally sell their Valencia crop to Sunland say they are pleased to hear the company has made progress toward reopening the mill. Nelson says while he can not confirm it, many of the farmers in West Texas are reporting Sunland has been making payments to producers for their 2012 crop “after the company received advance payments or loans” from some of their suppliers, like Costco.

“It’s been my experience that Sunland is responsive to the farmers who provide them their peanuts, and I know a lot of growers that think this whole business of FDA violations may have been blown out of proportion. Some of the violations may sound worse than they were.”

Nelson said it is his understanding that only products labeled for wholesale buyer Trader Joe’s were found to be suspect of contamination. Sunland also produces private label products for Whole Foods, Safeway, Target, Costco and others.

In late December, Sunland announced that the Food Facility Registration for its Portales, New Mexico, location had been reinstated. That followed an agreement reached between federal inspectors and plant officials that called for an independent, third party inspection of the facility to determine if the problems discovered from previous inspections had been corrected.

Sunland Inc. spokeswoman Katalin Coburn said earlier this month that the Portales-based company has rehired employees at its peanut mill and will soon hire back workers at the peanut butter mill. She says changes at the mills will put the company ahead of new FDA guidelines.

Last month,Wayne Baker, president of the New Mexico Peanut Grower's Association, said farmers are ready to put the uncertainty surrounding the shutdown behind them.
"The crop that we got in is just beautiful," he said. "They are the best peanuts we have had in a long time, so we are ready for this to be over.”

While the closing of the plant has delayed payments to producers, Nelson and fellow peanut farmers are expressing optimism there will be a future for peanuts in the region.

"I'm optimistic that once all of this blows over, we will be able to get on with the business of growing peanuts. Sunland has been good to us and I, for one, plan on growing peanuts again this year," Nelson said.