Sunland Inc. in Portales, NM, manufactures the peanut butter associated with an outbreak of a rare Salmonella strain, industry sources tell Food Safety News.

Labeled as Trader Joe’s Creamy Salted Valencia Peanut Butter, the product was officially recalled nationwide Saturday by Trader Joe’s stores for possible Salmonella Bredeney contamination after the product was linked to at least 29 illnesses in 18 states.

Sunland makes peanut butter –up to 6,000 pounds per hour– under several of its own brands and also makes Valencia peanut products for others including Trader Joe’s. A year ago Sunland hired a California design firm to design new label for peanut butter sold under the Kirkland brand by the wholesale membership giant Costco.

No other peanut butter brands manufactured by Sunland or anybody else in Portales, NM, the capital of the Valencia peanut region that spans an area of eastern New Mexico and western Texas, are involved in the recall nor have they been associated with the outbreak.

However, it is not known whether U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) personnel have visited the Sunland plant. (An FDA spokeswoman either did not know or could not say late Sunday.)

Conditions favorable to pathogen growth inside peanut butter plants have contributed to past outbreaks in 2007 and 2009.

Formed in 1988 by eastern New Mexico peanut farmers, Sunland was established to grow and market the “naturally sweet” Valencia peanut.

Trader Joe’s did not mention Sunland in its announcement of the recall, but within a short time, the New Mexico company had inquiries on Facebook asking “Does Sunland supply Valencia peanut butter to Trader Joe’s?

The “Valencia Peanut” character (likely someone in the P.R. department) did not respond for almost 24 hours, and then said: “The answer to your questions is: all Sunland brand products are perfectly safe to eat. Trader Joe’s Creamy Valencia Peanut Butter with Sea Salt has been recalled and pulled from Trader Joe’s shelves. I am attaching the link to the USDA announcement for your reference.”

Food Safety News reached out to both Sunland and Trader Joe’s for additional comment without success.

The North Carolina man who wanted to know said he had a soon-to-be 5-year old granddaughter with immune deficiencies. Many who went through the Peanut Butter of America (PCA) outbreak four years ago would say the man has reason to be concerned.

Peanut butter and peanut paste is a largely fungible product.

That became clear in the deadly 2008-09 outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium at the now bankrupt PCA peanut processing plants in Texas and Georgia. Hundreds of brand names on more than 3,900 products containing PCA peanut butter or peanut paste as ingredients had, in the end, to be recalled.

And, before that happened nine people were killed and 166 were taken to hospitals out of 714 victims in 46 states.

Salmonella comes in many strains. The strain that had led to the Trader Joe’s recall is rare. Salmonella Bredeney only accounts for 0.06 percent of Salmonella in the U.S. according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — and it can produce a range of symptoms, including some of the most severe.

CDC says 29 people in 18 states are now infected with the strain and four have been admitted to hospitals and no deaths have been reported.

It is so rare that the PFGE pattern is hardly ever seen on CDC’s national tracking system known as PulseNet. Usually there are only 5 to 8 cases a year for the entire country.

Ironically, however, S. Bredeney caused largest epidemic in modern Alabama history. About 177 people were sickened by it in the state’s Shelby County after eating in a local restaurant in 1999. At that time the rare cause of food poisoning caused “symptoms were mostly gastrointestinal and ranged greatly in severity,” according to a medical journal summary.

For the current outbreak, among persons for whom information is available, CDC said illness onset dates range from June 11, 2012 to September 2, 2012.

Ill persons range in age from less than 1 year to 77 years, with a median age of 7 years.

Seventy-six percent of ill persons are children under 18 years old. Sixty-four percent of ill persons are male. Among 11 ill persons with available information, 4 (36 percent) reported being hospitalized.

Among the hospitalized is a child under 18 in Maryland, who health officials say has not recovered.

Other information about the victims has so far only been provided by a handful of states. Those states and their case counts include:

Maryland (1)
Massachusetts (3)
Minnesota (1)
New York (1)
North Carolina (1)
Pennsylvania (2)
Rhode Island (1)

CDC, FDA, and California state health officials briefed Trader Joe’s on the possible contamination on September 20. The retailer agreed to remove the peanut butter from store shelves and initiate the recall.

Illustrations previously offered by the National Peanut Board were removed from this story at their request.