June 21, 2024

Salmonella Outbreak: Bird Poop On Peanuts At Sunland Plant

Eighteen months before the Salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter made at Sunland’s plant in Portales, NM,  FDA inspectors found bird poop on raw, unshelled peanuts that had yet to be processed and told the company that storing nuts where birds could fly over and land on them was a health hazard. But, a year and a half later, when FDA inspectors returned to the plant after the outbreak, they found the same thing.

Salmonella photoIn March, 2011, inspectors observed during and audit that “raw, in-shell peanuts were observed to be stored outdoors and exposed to the elements.” And that “birds too numerous to count were observed flying over and landing on the in-shell peanuts.  Apparent bird excreta also was observed on some of the in-shell peanuts.  Management stated that these in-shell peanuts would be processed into shelled peanuts. ”

Sunland’s response? “Bird excreta was removed before peanuts were put back in the process to be shelled. Date completed:  March 26, 2011.”

Apparently this response was deemed adequate because Sunland was allowed to remain open without further corrective actions being recommended. The company also requested that the FDA acknowledge that it had satisfactorily completed its audit to assuage the fears of some of their customers as Sunland President Jimmie Shearer wrote in a letter to the FDA:   “The concerns presently surrounding our industry have prompted a number of our customers to request an acknowledgement from FDA that its audit of Sunland has been successfully completed. As indicated in our Audit Response, most of  the observations noted were corrected  prior to the completion of the audit.”

In terms of food safety, wiping the bird poop off, isn’t the same as preventing it from getting on the food in the first place.  Salmonella is a pathogen that lives in the intestines of infected birds and is shed through their feces. Ingesting it makes people sick, especially young people who are big consumers of peanut butter. Sixty percent of  people sickened in this outbreak,  are children under 10. And because the tainted peanut butter was used to make Smucker’s Uncrustables served through the National School Lunch program, millions were exposed to harm. Sunland has had documented problems with Salmonella since 2009.

When FDA inspectors returned to the plant after the outbreak in September 2012, the company was still storing the nuts outside, and “birds too numerous to count” were still flying over, landing on and pooping all over them. There was even one day during the month-long audit when it rained which must have helped distribute the bird poop throughout the bins stored outside and perhaps through the softened, porous shells of the nuts themselves.

More than 250 products made with Sunland peanut butter or peanuts have been recalled since early September. At least 41 people in 20 states have confirmed cases of salmonellosis. The outbreak strain found in their stool samples matches the strain found in unopened jars of Sunland peanut butter and environmental swabs taken from multiple locations at the plant.




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