WALLA WALLA — If the ever-spreading peanut and peanut butter recall is driving you nuts, imagine being Katalin Coburn, vice president of media relations at Sunland Inc.
Sunland is the company that produces many of the products sold nationwide that use peanuts, from nutrition bars to ice cream to all kinds of baked goodies. And jars upon jars of peanut butter, marketed by multiple companies, including Costco, Target and Trader Joe’s.
“We specialize in the Valencia variety, and because it is the best-tasting peanut of all the varieties, any company that wants the superior taste profile of the Valencia seeks our product,” Coburn said this morning from her office in New Mexico, where she has been fielding calls from reporters for three weeks now.
On Sept. 24, the company began recalling products made before March 2010. Now all Sunland peanut products made after that date have been recalled by the company in voluntary cooperation with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The effort began with the discovery of a rare strain of salmonella in a single jar of Trader Joe’s-brand Valencia peanut butter.
The original recall included peanut butter and other nut butter products produced in a separate building from where raw and roasted peanuts are processed. Sunland announced on Friday, however, the recall has now been extended to include raw and roasted shelled, and in-shell peanuts processed in its peanut processing plant because those nuts have the potential to be also contaminated.
The raw and roasted peanuts available to retail customers were distributed primarily under Sunland’s own label and distributed mostly to produce houses and large supermarket and retail chains. The nuts were also available for purchase online.
Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and those with weakened immune systems. It can sicken healthy people and in rare cases, produce more severe illnesses such as arterial infections and arthritis. As of Oct. 5, the total number of confirmed illnesses associated with the recall is 35 people in approximately 18 states, according to the most current information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People need to understand that peanuts are an agricultural product grown in dirt, Coburn said. Sunland has been processing peanuts for 24 years and has developed a “tremendous amount of procedural and precautionary testing of every peanut that comes in and goes out of the facility.”
As well, she said, only that first 15-ounce jar of peanut butter has tested positive for salmonella so far.
The difficulty with this type of recall is that it is based on finding contamination at the plants, said Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department. “Classically, (the CDC) starts looking at these things and they start correlating people’s illnesses with the consumption of product, And as they go through the plant, they will find more and more contamination. A manufacturer will say, ‘We’re not sure it’s contaminated, but let’s bring it all in.’”
When it is one company doing much of the manufacturing of a certain product, that situation equals a big recall, Crowder explained. “Especially in a commodity like peanuts. You start thinking about all the things that can get involved. There are peanuts in everything.”
His department has not seen evidence of peanut-butter based illness here, he added. “But for a lot of things, salmonella being one of them, people might not seek treatment unless they become really, really ill.”
With peanuts on the ingredient list of products found in almost every household, it is surprising that the number of illnesses continues to stay at 35, Coburn said.
The company has about 150 permanent employees, who are in the process of learning more from health experts and tearing down and cleaning every piece of machinery, she said. Every procedure will be submitted to the FDA for approval.
Officials may find some processing steps of how peanuts are handled in the plant will need to be evaluated and changed to prevent another similar recall, Coburn said.
It is harvest season for peanuts and Sunland is continuing to receive fresh harvest, she noted.
“We anticipate being able to process peanuts in seven to 10 days, and six to eight weeks for peanut butter, although we have hope it will be shorter.”
For a complete list of recalled peanut-based and other products, go to www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm2005683.htm.