Sunland peanut butter recall proves sticky

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When Sunland Inc. of New Mexico began a recall effort on Sept. 24, it would have been difficult to gauge the tsunami effect that would have.

The peanut-processing company has voluntarily pulled more than 300 products off grocery shelves and out of store freezers after it was discovered one jar of peanut butter produced in its manufacturing plant contained a rare strain of salmonella, an organism that can potentially sicken people and be fatal to the very young and old.

Sunland is one of the country’s largest users of Valencia peanuts and producers of organic peanut butter, news reports say.

Peanuts populate the ingredient list of products found in almost every household, noted Katalin Coburn with Sunland.

Thirty-six people in 20 states have become ill from the same strain of salmonella, and 63 percent of those are children under age 10, according to health officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that eight people have been hospitalized. The most recent victim is a 5-year-old girl in New Mexico; no deaths have been reported.

While the bad news keeps spreading, Sunland’s woes won’t crack the peanut butter industry as a whole, said Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council.

“We see the opposite,” he said.

“No shortages are expected and prices are predicted to drop. After two years of terrible drought and high temperatures — equaling small crops and a 30 to 40 percent price jump — most peanut farmers in the United States were blessed with an exceptional growing year,” Archer pointed out.

“This year we had a big crop. We missed that huge Midwestern drought and prices are already coming back down to normal.”

The cost of a jar of peanut butter should be back to the “usual” price later this year or early 2013, he added, “as the new crop moves through the shelling process and that gets peanut butter to the stores.”

The largest manufacturers of the nutty (for the purists, peanuts are actually legumes) spread have “the very, very highest level of food safety. They employ all kinds of technology and methods to prevent contamination,” Archer explained, calling Sunland’s recall an exception in the industry.

Peanut butter has a long history with American consumers. It was first patented in 1884 in Quebec, touted as a health product in 1895 and presented at the Universal Exposition in St. Louis in 1904 by C.H. Sumner, who sold $705.11 of the “new treat” at his concession stand, according to the National Peanut Board.

It takes about 540 peanuts to make a 12-ounce jar of peanut butter, and there are enough peanuts in one acre to make 30,000 peanut butter sandwiches.

On average, Americans eat more than six pounds of peanuts and peanut butter products each year, per person, and the average child will eat 1,500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before he or she graduates from high school.

Peanut butter may be the most common national cuisine denominator. The spread is eaten in 90 percent of American households. And 60 percent of us prefer creamy over crunchy, the board said on its website.

Recall aside — and the CDC recommends no one consume any of the recalled peanut products from Sunland — the usual curse to peanut butter is exposure to air, Archer said. “Air causes it to lose its flavor and it goes rancid.”

Which is good to know as we head into November, national peanut butter lover’s month.

And Nov. 20? National peanut butter fudge day.

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