Sunland Inc. believes it took the necessary steps to reopen its peanut processing plant. The Food and Drug Administration disagrees.
The FDA suspended Sunland's food processing plant registration Tuesday just hours after plans were announced to reopen the plant, preventing the company from producing or distributing any food.
Sunland officials are still not sure exactly why they can't reopen the plant and start shelling millions of pounds of harvested peanuts, and is seeking clarification from FDA, according to company spokeswoman Katalin Coburn.
"It is a layoff until shellings begin," Coburn said.
Rather than appealing the FDA's decision through a hearing, Coburn said the company is requesting more information.
"The hearing was not shown to be useful to the purpose of finding out exactly what the FDA wants us to do in addition to what we have done," Coburn said.
Coburn added the hearing would have involved an independent party to review the case but would not have given them clarification as to what is needed to pull forward.
"We decided to request more information and more guidance from the FDA and that is the avenue we're pursuing," Coburn said. "(The request) is designed to have the FDA be more concise about what they want in addition to the completed corrective action we've taken in order to start the shelling operations only."
The Portales peanut company has been plagued with problems after being linked to a salmonella outbreak that sickened 41 people in 20 states. Sunland voluntarily recalled of hundreds of its products.
A two-month shutdown of its production plant led to the layoff of 28 of their 96 employees, Coburn said.
Community members have rallied behind Sunland and are upset with the FDA's actions. The Valencia peanut is vital to the area's economy and symbolic of the local community.
"We had the best crop in years, and then these (expletives) came in and started this," said resident and local telecomm worker Boyd Evans.
New Mexico Peanut Growers Association President and Sunland board member Wayne Baker says the industry generates about $60 million in the region each year.
"The FDA is overreaching its power and putting out information that isn't true," Baker said. "We don't understand what is going on. We don't think we are guilty."
Baker said officials have been trying for the past two months to cooperate with the FDA to get the plant reopened.
"That hasn't worked," he said. "But we are not going to give up. We are going to fight this. We have got no choice."
The peanut is celebrated every year at the town's annual Peanut Valley Festival, and most residents have stories related to peanuts, whether growing up on a peanut farm, helping to haul them to harvest or knowing peanut workers or farmers.
"Peanuts is, like, everything here," said local shopkeeper Brittany Mignard.
The FDA's findings of Sunland included salmonella in 13 nut butter samples and in one sample of raw peanuts, improper handling of products, unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside the facility that were exposed to birds and rain.
Inspectors also found that employees did not have access to hand-washing sinks and dirty hands had direct contact with ready-to-package peanuts. The FDA has inspected the plant at least four times over the past five year, each time finding violations.
"Anytime the FDA had come and inspected Sunland, there were reports filed and those reports were citing their observations in 2010," Coburn said. "Sunland replied with corrected action."
Coburn is hoping that the FDA will have a timely response to their request so that they can get the wheels turning on their recovery from this salmonella outbreak.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
The following list are FDA reports to Sunland after inspections:
- Oct. 29, 2012
- Aug. 8, 2011
- April 13, 2011
- March 25, 2011
- Establishment Inspection Report March 25, 2011
- Oct. 7, 2010
- Sept. 23, 2010
- >Establishment Inspection Report Sept. 23, 2010
- July 7, 2009
- April 10, 2009
- March 10, 2009
- Establishment Inspection Report March 10, 2009
- Establishment Inspection Report March 25, 2007
- March 25, 2007
- Establishment Inspection Report June 6, 2007