Year in Review – National recall targeted Sunland

Editor's note: This fifth and final story in a series on the top news stories in the PNT coverage area in 2012.

At the end of August, at a luncheon in Albuquerque, Sunland Peanuts of Portales was recognized as one of the top 100 privately-owned businesses in the state of New Mexico. With 125 employees, the local company basked in the glow of the honor bestowed by Albuquerque businessmen and women.

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Sunland Inc., is on its way from recovering from a massive setback after the Portales peanut company was linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak this fall.

But at around the same time, jars of Creamy Salted Valencia Peanut Butter were being purchased at Trader Joe's grocery stores around the country and the subsequent impact to Sunland — makers of the peanut butter — would soon be felt. That's because some of those jars, according to the Food and Drug Administration as well as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, were the source of a salmonella outbreak that reached 42 people in 20 states.

The consequences for Sunland Peanuts, one of few Portales-based businesses with a national scope and the most prominent, were quick and substantial.

Sunland recalled 76 types of peanut butter and almond butter on Sept. 24 because the butters, according to a company spokesperson, were manufactured with the same equipment as the product supplied to Trader Joe's. Just over a week later, with its production operation already effectively shut down, Sunland expanded its voluntary recall just as the FDA revealed it found "objectionable conditions" at the company's plant in 2010.

As the fall's peanut crop available to Sunland sat unprocessed, the business tried to reopen in November only to be stymied by the FDA.

"Consumers can be assured that products will not leave this facility until we determine they have implemented preventive measures that are effective to produce safe products," said Michael Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner for foods.

"Since we were beginning with just the shelling process, we were hopeful to be operating again, but the FDA apparently felt otherwise," said Katalin Coburn, Sunland's vice-president, in an interview with the Portales News-Tribune. "Apparently our response to their findings was not sufficient enough, so we are currently trying to find out what response would be satisfactory to them. We are granted a hearing, so we are working on our response for that."

Some good news, before the end of 2012, finally came to Sunland and the town it calls home.

In December in federal court, a deal was reached with federal regulators which allowed Sunland to renew operations on Dec. 26 as long as the company hired an independent expert to develop an FDA-approved sanitation plan.

Sunland President Jimmie Shearer called the deal a "Christmas gift."

"We basically corrected all the things they said needed to be corrected and if not, we gave them a timetable that would be acceptable to them," Shearer said about the agreement in an interview with the Portales News-Tribune.

Shearer says the company has hired an independent expert, a consultant from Washington, D.C., to develop the sanitation plan needed to get the company back in full swing, in hopes to start making and selling products soon.

"It's very detailed, it covers everything," said Shearer about the sanitation plan. "We upped all the standards another degree."

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