Reported earlier in FE’s Tech Flash e-newsletter, the recent Salmonella Bredeney outbreak has sickened a total of 35 people in 19 states, and has been attributed to peanut butter—and potentially other nut butters—from Sunland Inc. (Portales, NM). Sunland Inc. initiated a recall on September 24, 2012, when 29 people in approximately 18 states had reported Salmonella Bredeney PFGE (pulsed field gel electrophoresis) matching illnesses.
According to Sunland’s updated, extended recall notice (October 12), of the initial group of 29 people, 12 of 14 interviewed by CDC reported having eaten the same product made by the company. The Salmonella infections were linked to Trader Joe’s Valencia Creamy Salted Peanut Butter, with an SKU of 97111.
The extended recall applies to raw and roasted, shelled and in-shell peanuts produced in the company’s peanut processing plant because these products also have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella. The recalled products include peanuts within their current shelf life or with no stated expiration date, which were sold in quantities from 2 oz. to 50 lbs., according to Sunland Inc. Both recalls have resulted in scores of secondary and tertiary recalls from Sunland’s food processor customers in the US and Canada.
Since late September, FDA, CDC and state and local public health officials have been investigating the multi-state outbreak of Salmonella infections linked to peanut butter made by Sunland. As part of the ongoing investigation, FDA has been inspecting the Sunland production facilities, which include a building in which peanuts are processed (roasted to kill bacteria) and a separate building where nut butters are made.
On October 5, FDA reported environmental samples taken in the nut butter facility showed the presence of Salmonella. Subsequent analysis determined Salmonella Bredeney with the same DNA fingerprint as the outbreak strain was present in the samples. In addition, testing conducted by the Washington State Department of Agriculture lab isolated the outbreak strain from an opened jar of Trader Joe’s Valencia Creamy Peanut Butter collected from a case-patient’s home.
On October 13, FDA reported samples of raw products from the peanut processing facility were found to have the presence of Salmonella. According to FDA, environmental samples taken from this building also showed the presence of Salmonella. Environmental samples were taken from various surfaces in the facility that would likely support bacteria growth.
Sunland, a GFSI/SQF 2000-certified site, has ceased the production and distribution of all products from its nut butter and peanut processing facilities. In addition, order taking has been suspended on the company’s website.
In August 2011, Sunland Inc. received its SQF 2000 Level 3 certification, according to a press release from the company obtained by the Clovis News Journal. Silliker Global Certification Services issued the certification, which was at the time, the highest achievable certification.
On its website certifications page (March 25, 2010), Sunland Inc. listed USDA Organic certification, New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission Certified (NMOCC) and Orthodox Union Kosher and Pareve certification. It also listed separately OSHA, HACCP, GMP and Silliker Laboratories, its auditing firm.
In a USA Today article, a Sunland spokesperson was quoted as saying the company received a 90 percent score every time it was audited. But, Bill Marler, principal at Marler Clark LLP, says he’s heard this story before. In his October 6 blog posting , Marler says FDA found what it called “objectionable conditions” at a New Mexico peanut butter plant in 2010, two years before the current outbreak.
“FDA found problems at Sunland before,” says Marler. “Agency records show two inspections at the plant in 2009 and 2010 found ‘objectionable conditions’ but classified findings as not meeting the agency’s threshold for action. According to the records, any corrective action on the part of the company was voluntary.”
FDA has not yet released details on what the objectionable conditions were or why the agency visited the plant twice in two years. Marler says FDA is preparing to release that information.
On October 15, SQF certification of Sunland Foods was withdrawn. According to SQF Institute: “The company’s certification, issued by and audited through Sunland’s certification body (CB), was suspended on October 2, 2012, after the company failed to submit to the CB short-term and long-term corrective action plans following its peanut butter recall. Last evening, SQFI was notified by Sunland’s CB that they were withdrawing certification due to the ongoing difficulty in obtaining definitive information from the company regarding the product recall and corrective actions.”
Richard Stier, FE’s contributing editor, covered “Food Safety: The trouble with third-party audits,” in May 2009, immediately following the Peanut Corporation of America recalls. In the article, Stier states that the real concern, assuming auditors are rigorous and detail-oriented, is getting the processor to follow up and fix the problems found by auditors.