April 17, 2024

After Peanut Butter Salmonella Outbreak, Feds Slap Sunland With Suit

After a Salmonella outbreak linked to tainted peanut butter sickened 42 people and prompted more than 250 food product recalls, the federal government is seeking to permanently enjoin the nation’s largest producer of  organic peanut butter from receiving, making or distributing any product until conditions at the plant meet federal food safety standards. Sunland Inc., of Portales, NM, and its president, Jimmie Shearer, were named as defendants in a suit filed December 20 in US District Court in the District of New Mexico. The suit was submitted on behalf of the federal government by US Attorney for the District of New Mexico Kenneth Gonzales.

SalmonellaSunland is the nation’s largest manufacturer of organic peanut butter, producing peanut butter for major retailers under their own labels including  Trader Joe’s, Newman’s Own, Earth Balance, Harry & David, Target’s Archer Farms and Safeway’s Open Nature which were among the hundreds of companies that had to recall their products from the market after the contamination was discovered. The recalled peanut butter also made its way into the National School Lunch program via Smucker’s Uncrustables and bulk drums. Operations at the company, which has purchased the bulk of this year’s organic peanut crop, have been suspended since September when the outbreak and the first of the recalls was announced.

As it investigated the outbreak, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began releasing documents from its inspections of Sunland’s manufacturing facility. Documents from 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2012 cite the same problems:  Salmonella in the plant, pest problems, employees not following food safety practices, poor maintenance of the building and equipment and improper storage of raw materials.  In the 2011 and 2012 reports, inspectors made note of  birds “too numerous to count” flying over, landing on and pooping on nuts stored outside that had yet to be processed.

This is not the first lawsuit in which Sunland has been named a defendant. Lawsuits filed on behalf of some of the 42 victims of the outbreak, most of whom were children, have been filed.

At the end of November, Sunland released  a statement saying it was trying to address the problems identified by the FDA saying: “During the last two months Sunland has been working with experts as well as with FDA, analyzing data, and developing and implementing proposed corrective actions in order to be in a position to reopen first the shelling plant and then the peanut butter plant.  These plans were submitted to FDA in our response to the inspection observation.”  The company has not yet issued a statement in response to the suit.


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