Several peanut and other nut products were recently recalled by Sunland, Inc. due to salmonella contamination.
Katalin Coburn , vice president for media relations at Sunland, Inc., said that the company decided to voluntarily recall the products in the best interest of the consumers.
“A [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] investigation found that 29 illnesses due to salmonella were reported,” Coburn said. “Fourteen of these people were interviewed, and it was discovered that 12 of these people had eaten Sunland peanut butter in the last week.”
Despite the fact that the CDC has not been able to confirm the presence of salmonella in any of the company’s products, Sunland, Inc. decided that the number of illnesses reported were enough to warrant a recall, Coburn said.
Additionally, the company has decided to recall all products produced in the same facility, because there is a possibility that these products could be contaminated with salmonella, Coburn said. The expanded recall includes over 200 products, she said.
Sara Milillo , Penn State instructor of food science, said that salmonella contamination is the most difficult to prevent. While there has been a general decrease in food-borne illnesses overall, estimated cases of illness due to salmonella have remained constant at about one million cases a year.
“Salmonella can be difficult to control because there are so many different types,” Milillo said.
Salmonella is a host-adapted bacterium, meaning that it is almost always transmitted through an animal, Milillo said. Cross-contamination — when an infected animal comes in contact with something in the environment, which then comes into contact with the food product — is usually the cause of salmonella contamination in non-animal products like peanut butter.
Milillo said that salmonella could potentially contaminate the product during several stages of production. She said an infected animal could come into contact with the peanuts during transport, or the animal could come in contact with something in the plant, such as water, which directly contacts the food.
Peanut butter is especially vulnerable to contamination because the only time heat is used in the entire process is when the peanuts are being roasted, and roasting temperatures are not high enough to kill the bacteria, she said.
Milillo said that the relatively high number of salmonella outbreaks is due to the complexity of controlling cross-contamination of the bacteria, not poor testing procedures.
“The current system is pretty good,” Milillo said. “The USDA and FDA are continually improving testing.”
Coburn said that Sunland, Inc. uses state-of-the-art testing procedures in their plants, but bacteria are so common in everyday life that it inevitably finds its way into the plant.
Christopher Gardner (senior-food science) said he plans to work in quality control after graduation and believes that outbreaks like this reflect poorly on the industry.
“You don’t want to see it,” Gardner said. “It irks me.”
Gardner sees that there is room for improvement in a new generation of workers, but agrees that lack of technology is not the problem.
Coburn said that Sunland, Inc. is working 24/7 to improve quality and make sure that consumers feel safe eating its products once again.