Years before an outbreak of food-borne illness led to the closing and bankruptcy of Sunland Inc., salmonella began turning up in the Portales company’s own lab tests, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration records.
FDA officials investigating an outbreak of food-borne salmonella illnesses last year found the positive salmonella tests in the company’s testing records, according to letters the FDA sent to the company explaining the agency’s actions.
The outbreak ultimately sickened 41 people in 20 states, most of them children under 10.
A private lab under contract with Sunland, then the nation’s largest manufacturer of organic peanut butter, identified nine different salmonella types from June 2009 to August 2012 in tests of the company’s products, the FDA reported. According to the agency, the company distributed nut butter products from 11 lots after its own testing program identified salmonella contamination.
Jimmie Shearer, CEO of Sunland, said the company never knowingly distributed products that showed any signs of contamination.
“Absolutely not,” Shearer said in a phone interview Thursday. “Sunland never released anything they thought was a problem. Period.”
Sunland closed its doors Oct. 9 and announced Chapter 7 liquidation, leaving about 100 employees out of work and area farmers scrambling to find markets for a bumper crop of Valencia peanuts.
The Sunland case also highlighted shortcomings in New Mexico’s ability to adequately inspect some 280 food processors and manufacturers that operate under permits from the state Environment Department.
“We are currently in the process of revising our regulations, and part of it is motivated by the experience we had with Sunland,” said Steve Zappe, the department’s food safety program manager. “We had inspected them routinely but hadn’t identified any problems.”
Contamination ‘out of our league’
Sunland is one of the about 280 food processors under permit with the Environment Department and was inspected annually by the agency as required by state law.
Zappe described the agency’s approximately 60 inspectors as “generalists” who are primarily responsible for inspecting more than 6,000 restaurants and other food-service businesses statewide, in addition to public swimming pools and septic systems.
In Sunland’s case, the contamination lay in the pipes used to transport peanut butter during the manufacturing process, Zappe said. Sunland also failed to clean the pipes effectively when lab testing found salmonella contamination in product samples, he said.
The Environment Department currently does not have the staff or the training to perform detailed testing that would have identified salmonella contamination.
“We’re looking at general sanitation and not so much the minutiae and details of how the food is processed,” he said. The contamination at Sunland “was out of our league,” he said.
Sunland destroyed batches of nut butter that its lab tests showed were contaminated, then relied on “pushing clean peanut butter through the pipes” to rid the system of contamination, Zappe said. “That was not an appropriate approach to deal with contamination of the product,” he said.
In addition, Sunland was unable to properly isolate raw nuts, which are most likely to be contaminated, from roasted nuts, resulting in contamination of finished products, Zappe said. Roasting is considered the “kill step” that destroys harmful organisms.
Shearer declined to discuss Sunland’s protocol for testing products for contamination or cleaning equipment. Nor would he discuss the company’s response to lab tests that showed evidence of contamination.
“I don’t want to get into it,” Shearer said.
In the coming year, Zappe said, the state Environment Department plans to update its regulations, allowing the agency to inspect food processors under contract with the FDA.
The proposed regulatory changes would incorporate the FDA’s manufactured food regulatory program standards, already adopted by 39 states, that should allow state officials to apply FDA-quality inspections at food manufacturers.
Zappe said he believes the state agency could have overseen Sunland more effectively had the proposed regulatory changes been in place earlier.
“We would have had the training, the staff and the expertise, and most likely the (FDA) contract, to allow to us to conduct the inspections” on behalf of the FDA, he said.
Salmonella found over three years
Sunland recalled hundreds of nut butters and nuts manufactured since 2010 after Trader Joes’ Valencia Creamy Peanut Butter was linked to salmonella illnesses in September 2012.
The FDA closed Sunland in November 2012 under new powers granted to the agency by the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act. The closure followed inspections at the Portales plant by FDA and state Environment Department officials that included an examination of Sunland’s testing records.
The FDA told Sunland in a May 23 letter that for a period of more than three years, from June 2009 to August 2012, Sunland distributed nut butter products from 11 lots, or daily production runs, “after its own testing program identified the presence of at least one of nine Salmonella types.”
Two of those daily production runs contained Salmonella Bredeney, the strain linked to the outbreak, the FDA wrote.
Inspectors also found salmonella contamination in 28 locations in the plant, in 13 nut butter samples and one sample of raw peanuts, the FDA reported.
Sunland posted a statement on its website in November 2012 denying that the company knowingly distributed products 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,” Sunland’s statement said. “In every instance where test results indicated the presence of a contaminant, the implicated product was destroyed and not release for distribution.”
Katalin Coburn, Sunland’s former vice president for media relations, referred the Journal’s questions to the company’s bankruptcy trustee, Clarke C. Coll.
Coll, a Roswell attorney, said he could not discuss Sunland’s food-safety protocols, but rejected any suggestion the company knowingly released contaminated products.
“I don’t believe there’s been any inference that Sunland, or anyone at Sunland, produced or sent out a product that they knew was certainly contaminated,” Coll said.
He also said Sunland spent “significant sums” after the 2012 outbreak “to go above and beyond even the FDA requirements” to ensure sanitary conditions at the plant.