WASHINGTON (AP) — A New Mexico peanut company linked to a recent salmonella outbreak distributed peanut and almond butters after its own internal testing showed the products were contaminated, the Food and Drug Administration says.
Sunland Inc. is the nation's largest organic peanut butter processor, though it also produces many non-organic products. The company recalled hundreds of nuts and nut butters manufactured since 2010 after one of its products, Trader Joe's Valencia Creamy Peanut Butter, was linked to 41 salmonella illnesses around the country in September.
FDA reports released this week show that repeated agency inspections found problems at the plant since 2007, though government officials didn't take any action or release the results of those inspections until after the illnesses were discovered this year. Sunland sold hundreds of different peanut products to many of the nation's largest grocery chains, including Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Safeway, Target and other large national retailers.
In a monthlong investigation in September and October, FDA inspectors found 28 different samples of salmonella in Sunland's plant. The agency also found improper handling of the products, unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside the facility that were exposed to rain and birds.
"Investigators found that employees improperly handled equipment, containers, and utensils used to hold and store food," the agency report reads. "Employees handling peanut products wiped gloved hands on street clothes and other times failed to wash their hands or change gloves. There were no hand washing sinks in the peanut processing building production or packaging areas and employees had bare-handed contact with ready-to-package peanuts."
The FDA said that over the past three years, company's tests showed products were shipped even though portions of their lots, or daily production runs, tested positive for salmonella. The agency also found that the internal tests failed to find salmonella when it was present.