Sun sets on N.M. success story

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By Sherry Robinson

During a recent trip to the East Side, Sunland Inc.’s closed peanut butter plant was the saddest, loneliest place we saw. A New Mexico success story, Sunland was the nation’s largest producer of organic peanut butter and a major employer in Portales.
The company’s descent into salmonella contamination, regulatory response, financial troubles, and bankruptcy is a cautionary tale for anyone wanting to enter the business of processing food.
That would include a lot of people – everyone from the cook selling her secret salsa to producers of blue corn products. In any discussion of rural job creation, food processors top the list. In the last legislative session, lawmakers passed a memorial signaling their interest in adding commercial kitchens to business incubators.
The story begins with New Mexico’s Valencia peanuts, which are much tastier than Georgia peanuts. In 1988 10 farmers founded Sunland. When it closed last month, Sunland had been making 6,000 pounds of peanut better an hour around the clock for big-name retailers and contracting with about 130 peanut farmers.
The FDA found problems at Sunland in 2009, but left it up to the company to take corrective action. Three years later, Sunland shut down production and voluntarily recalled 76 kinds of peanut butter and almond butter after the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked 41 sick people in 20 states to Trader Joe’s Creamy Salted Valencia Peanut Butter produced by Sunland. The company subsequently expanded the recall to more than 300 products.
In November 2012 an FDA investigation found 28 samples of salmonella in the plant, along with improper handling of products, unclean equipment, and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside exposed to rain and birds.
Sunland management still hoped to reopen, but the FDA, wielding newly granted food-safety authority, revoked the company’s operating certificate without a court hearing. The FDA said Sunland had a history of salmonella contamination, up to nine strains, and hadn’t fixed the problem. Locals denounced the action as unfair and heavy-handed.
Employees tore down and scrubbed peanut butter equipment top to bottom and tested. In late December, regulators allowed the company to resume some operations under federal supervision but required Sunland to hire an independent expert to develop a sanitation plan.
“We got to the point where we just laid down at the feet of the FDA and said, ‘Tell us what you want,’” Sunland board secretary Wayne Baker told the Portales News-Tribune. Sunland used $150,000 of its economic development funding from the city to develop a sanitation plan.
In hindsight, state inspectors could have played good cop to the FDA’s bad cop. The state Environment Department’s 60 inspectors examine some 280 food processors and more than 6,000 restaurants and other food-related businesses. It had found no problems at Sunland.
A state food safety manager told the Albuquerque Journal that Sunland’s problems were in the pipes used to transport peanut butter. Sunland didn’t clean the pipes effectively and failed to isolate raw nuts, which are most likely to be contaminated, from roasted nuts; that meant finished products were contaminated. The state is now planning to improve training for inspectors.
Some growers told the Southwest Farm Press they think the FDA was trying to make an example of Sunland to get a message out about food-borne illness after a series of outbreaks in the last two years.
Was the FDA heavy handed? If it was your child who was hospitalized with salmonella, no. If you live in Portales, yes. Still, Sunland, a company I admired, seems to have lost sight of basics in its push for new products and markets.
Bottom line: The public has a right to expect the food they buy will not make them sick.