The peanut butter processing plant that’s been named as the epicenter of an ongoing Salmonella outbreak was found to be operating under “objectionable conditions” when U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials inspected its facilities in 2009 and 2010.
Now, two years later, peanut butter made by Sunland, Inc. in Portales, New Mexico has been connected to at least 35 illnesses and 8 hospitalizations across 19 states. The outbreak prompted the company to recall hundreds of products containing peanut butter dating back as far as March 2010 and to suspend production.
According to FDA records, agency officials performed random routine inspections at Sunland in March 2009 and September 2010. Both times, the plant was rated “Voluntary Action Indicated,” meaning that inspectors found “objectionable conditions” not severe enough to merit regulatory action but which prompted the agency to issue voluntary corrective recommendations.
What these “objectionable conditions” were, exactly, remains unclear. An FDA spokeswoman told Food Safety News the agency would release those inspection reports “soon.”
Katalin Coburn, spokeswoman for Sunland, also could not provide specifics on the shortcomings at the plant, but told Food Safety News that the company immediately addressed any concerns highlighted by inspectors.
On October 5, FDA announced that it had found Salmonella in environmental samples taken from the plant, but that further testing is necessary to determine if it is the outbreak strain. The Washington State Department of Agriculture has isolated the outbreak strain of Salmonella Bredeney from a patient’s jar of Trader Joe’s Valencia Creamy Peanut Butter, thus far the only Sunland product definitively linked to the outbreak out of the 240 subject to recall.
Coburn said the company is still working with FDA to investigate what might have caused the contamination.
“Being a company that has been extremely circumspect, we’re very carefully going through the findings and figuring out what may have happened,” she said. “I’m sure in the next few days there will be a lot more information, but those data need to be carefully analyzed.”
While the company continues to suspend production pending the investigation, the ongoing peanut harvest has brought in a stock of product awaiting processing.
Patients affected by the outbreak range in age from 1 to 79, with a median age of 7. More than 60 percent are children under the age of 10.
This outbreak follows nearly four years after Salmonella-contaminated peanut butter manufactured by Peanut Corporation of America sickened at least 714 people in 46 states and contributed to 9 deaths.© Food Safety News