Nov. 15, 2012 at 4:52 PM ET
A New Mexico peanut plant tied to a food poisoning outbreak that sickened dozens sent potentially tainted lots out the door even after its internal testing found at least nine different types of salmonella in peanut and almond butters, Food and Drug Administration officials said. Two of the 11 lots included the outbreak strain of the bacteria.
The pathogens were also found throughout the peanut plant operated by Sunland Inc. in Portales, N.M., where FDA inspectors found salmonella in 28 environmental samples between mid-September and mid-October.
But the company's president and chief executive denied that the firm shipped tainted products and said its response to FDA would make that clear.
"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," Jimmie Shearer said in a statement posted on the company's website. "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."
The month-long FDA inspection of the Sunland plant that supplied peanut butter, nut butters and other nut products to major retailers including Trader Joes, Whole Foods and Harry and David found dirty equipment and slipshod food safety and cleaning practices that may have raised the risk of serious illness -- including food poisoning and life-threatening allergic reactions.
Specifically, the company failed to clean production and packaging equipment between runs of nuts such as peanuts, which contain allergens. In May 2011, the firm received a complaint that a child had developed anaphylactic shock after eating almond butter that contained peanut allergens, the FDA said.
The 11-page report says that employees improperly handled equipment, containers and utensils, failed to wash their hands and had bare-handed contact with ready-to-package peanuts.
Inspectors also noted that the company left trailers full of raw, in-shell peanuts uncovered outdoors, where they were exposed to the elements, including rain and animals.
“Birds too numerous to count were observed flying over and landing on the peanuts in the trailers,” the report finds.
Salmonella infections tied to recalled Trader Joe’s Valencia Creamy Salted Peanut Butter made with Sea Salt sickened 41 people in 20 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ten people were hospitalized; there were no deaths.
But at least 240 products have been recalled in the outbreak that started with the Trader Joe’s products, with some dating back to 2010. That included nearly 2 million pounds of whole peanuts produced by the Hines Nut Co. and sold nationally in supermarkets such as Wal-mart and Dollar General stores. For a list of recalled products, click here.
Inspectors found that Sunland’s own internal testing program documented at least nine and up to 13 types of salmonella in peanut butter products the company produced and distributed.
That includes the salmonella Bredeney that caused the infections linked to the Trader Joe’s peanut butter. In addition, they found the salmonella strains Newport, Dallgow, Arapahoe, Teddington, Cerro, Mbandaka, Kubacha and Meleagridis in various lots of the products. They also detected a strain that might have been one of three types of salmonella: Othmarschen, Oranienburg, Winston or Oakey.
But the FDA also found salmonella in five product samples that were not identified by the firm’s internal testing -- including the outbreak strain of salmonella Bredeney.
The Sunland plant remains closed. FDA officials say they are evaluating the firm’s response to the inspection report.