By Christina Calloway
PNT senior writer
The nation’s largest organic peanut butter processor is a month away from having its products back on shelves nationwide, according to the company’s president.
Sunland Inc. President Jimmy Shearer says the company has made some major changes to its food safety procedures as demanded by the Food and Drug Administration, the regulator in Sunland’s return to the nut butter market, in order to begin production of its products.
The company’s plant was turned upside down and scrubbed vigorously after Sunland’s products were linked to a salmonella outbreak that sickened 41 people in 20 states, causing the plant to close its doors last fall.
In a month-long investigation conducted by FDA inspectors in the fall, samples of salmonella were found in 28 locations in the plant and in 13 nut butter samples.
Sunland got the go ahead to ramp up production in December by the FDA as long as it met requirements to do so including the development of a sanitation plan.
“That ought to be the safest peanut butter in the world,” says Wayne Baker, president of the New Mexico Peanut Growers Association and a member of Sunland’s board. “Everything is looking much more positive. We’re really hoping that we can get everything going soon.”
Baker is involved in the Roosevelt County community and says community members have never left Sunland’s side as it moved to get back on its feet from the salmonella scare.
“We were providing close to 150 jobs a big part of the year, the money that’s generated here goes back to the community,” Baker said. “I think it’s very important for the community to keep Sunland going and we’re hoping we can.”
Shearer says the company has nearly 100 employees and has rehired most workers laid off when the plants closed. But because the shelling portion of the plant remains closed as it works to meet FDA standards, there will be no roasted and salted peanuts coming from Sunland.
“We’ve changed the products right now, we’re not doing the small raw products,” Shearer said.
He added that Sunland discontinued some peanut butter products that had ingredients he didn’t want to work with anymore.
According to Sunland’s new sanitation plan, Shearer talks about the journey of a peanut, from the shell to the jar:
September and October:
- Sunland develops seed with another company and the works with local growers, within a 200-mile radius of Portales, to grow the millions of peanuts it processes. Sunland also handles organic products, which have to be approved by a third party.
- Once peanuts are harvested, they are brought to the plant and are met by a federal inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The inspector checks every load of peanuts coming into the plant, ensuring they meet all regulations before purchased. If the peanuts do not meet inspection standards, they are either discarded or cleaned. Factors such as moisture and soil can be a small problem that can be cleaned off.
- After peanuts pass inspection, they are put into different compartments of the company’s barn for different products.
The rest of the year:
- Once the peanuts are taken out of the barn, they are sorted and cleaned again. An electronic scanner is used to reject any bad in-shell peanuts. After the peanuts are bagged, they are again inspected by the USDA.
- Peanuts are then taken to the peanut butter plant to be roasted and run through a blancher.
- Peanuts are then mixed with any ingredients that are required by the customer and pushed through grinders.
- The products are then passed through a metal detector before being placed into jars.
- During the process, 15 samples will be pulled and those samples will be composited and tested by a third party lab to check for any problems.
- If everything is in order, jars are sealed and capped and run through an X-ray before being packaged for customers.
Shearer said peanuts are processed on a separate line from tree nuts to prevent cross contamination, another key change in the company’s sanitation plan.
Shearer said he’s anxious to get Sunland’s products back on shelves as employees are running at full speed to meet that deadline.
“We have a lot of orders to fill,” Shearer said optimistically. “We’ll be back. We’ve been active in the community and the community has supported us. We plan to be heavily involved.”