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Sunland Asking FDA for Permission to Shell Peanuts

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is under increasing pressure to at least allow the shelling of Valencia peanuts grown during the past season that are now mostly stored in Sunland Inc.’s warehouses.

Sunland Inc.’s peanut processing facility in Portales, NM—linked to a 20 state outbreak of Salmonella that has sickened at least 41 people—closed voluntarily on Sept. 26, but then two weeks ago FDA prevented the manufacturing company  from reopening by suspending its food plant registration.

Sunland is now requesting permission from FDA to re-open just to shell peanuts as New Mexico’s elected officials are voicing their concerns about the shutdown’s impact on the local economy.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, says he is concerned about the impact that months of closure will have on the people of Portales and the surrounding area. He said his staff is working with FDA and Sunland to get a corrective action plan completed so the plant can re-open for the production of safe and healthy products.

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-NM, says Sunland is dealing with some serious violations, but the company is a big part of the economy of eastern New Mexico, and people need to get back to work.

State Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Roswell, said Roosevelt County needs to “save the plant and save the jobs.”

Sunland could, under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), request an informal hearing, but it has apparently decided only to ask if it can resume shelling peanuts.   Sunland views peanut shelling and peanut processing as separate operations, but it is unclear as to whether FDA shares that view.

Sunland, which has millions of pounds of harvested Valencia peanuts in storage, has laid off 28 of 98 employees until it can resume shelling operations. The Valencia peanut-growing area spans the New Mexico-Texas border.

The nation’s largest organic peanut processor plans to clean and re-build areas of its plant and re-open sometime early in 2013 if FDA gives it the green light.

© Food Safety News
  • MrMcFritters

    On its face, Sunland’s request to undertake shelling operations seems reasonable (if a bit of a head-scratcher procedurally) since none of the violations the FDA cited Sunland for were in the shelling plant.  

    I am deeply curious, however, as to what Sunland’s argument for re-opening will be.  While it is possible that the salmonella in Sunland’s peanut butter manufacturing plant came from rodents or birds or water, it is much more likely that it came from the raw peanuts themselves, and that those raw peanuts came from Sunland’s shelling plant.  I am unaware that the FDA has ever taken an enforcement action against a peanut sheller for shipping raw peanuts contaminated with salmonella on to manufacturers, but it is well known that some level of contamination is fairly routine (the number I hear kicked around is anywhere from 2% to 5%).  Attempting to require shellers to eliminate salmonella at their plants would be a big deal economically and politically.

    (It is worth noting as a small point at this juncture that the FDA’s criticism of the common practice of holding harvested peanuts in open wire mesh trailers was not included in the letter that accompanied the pulling of the registration, though there was much public outrage expressed over this when it came out.)

  • Guest

    I don’t want to make light of a potentially serious problem, but 41 cases in 20 states is statistically insignificant.  Yes, it’s a very serious problem to those who get sick.  I’ve had salmonella, and it’s not a pleasant experience.  I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.  Still, from a statistical point of view, that’s not a lot of cases, and the FDA is being far too heavy-handed in this case.  From the farmers and employees who depend on Sunland for their livelihoods to the millions of people around the country who enjoy the world’s best peanut butter, this affects far too many people for the FDA to issue a death penalty.  Sunland has a plan.  Let them fix the problem and reopen.

    Btw, none of these stories mentions the fact that the birds that are the real source of the problem can’t be controlled because they’re endangered.  Who should we protect–birds or people?

  • MrMcFritters

    Wow.  With friends like this, Sunland hardly needs enemies.