The peanut butter production line in 2005 at Sunland Inc's peanut plant in Portales, N.M.(Photo: Richard Pipes, AP)
Could the United States be facing an organic peanut butter shortage?
The New Mexico processor that owns 90% of this year's organic peanut
harvest has had its production license revoked by the Food and Drug
Administration. Now supermarkets are bracing for a possible shortage.
Inc. voluntarily shut down its peanut butter plant in Portales, N.M.,
on Sept. 24 after an outbreak of salmonella that sickened 41 people,
mostly children, was linked to peanut butter produced there. It had
hoped to reopen its peanut shelling facility this week, but the FDA
announced Monday that it was shutting the company down.
audit released earlier this month found salmonella in 28 locations in
the plant and examples of improper handling, unclean equipment and
positive salmonella tests that the company ignored.
said in a written statement on Nov. 15, "At no time in its 24-year
history has Sunland Inc. released for distribution any products that it
knew to be potentially contaminated with harmful microorganisms."
agency's ability to close the plant without a court order was part of
its new authority under the Food Safety Modernization Act, which became
law in January 2011.
With this year's organic Valencia peanut
harvest just finished, the company has "millions of pounds" of peanuts
in its barns that it can't grind because of the shutdown, and the peanut
butter that was already made had to be destroyed, said Sunland
spokeswoman Katalin Coburn.
"We've essentially destroyed
everything that was in the market and in our inventory," she said. The
one bright spot is that the newly harvested peanuts have a long shelf
life in temperature-controlled barns and will keep for a year, she said.
the Seattle area, PCC Natural Markets anticipates that demand will
exceed supply. "We have not been contacted by our organic peanut butter
suppliers regarding a shortage but expect that will be the case in the
near future," said Diana Chapman, the natural food market chain's
director of sustainability.
Some stores are probably feeling the
pinch already, said Leslie Wagner, executive director of the Southern
Peanut Growers in Canton, Ga.
"Since Sunland has been shut down
for two months and all the products have been recalled, we have strong
reason to believe that the market impact has already been felt in terms
of availability of organic peanut butter," Wagner said.
foods behemoth Whole Foods Market says it is "business as usual" in its
stores because it gets its organic peanut butter from several suppliers.
"This hasn't affected our supply so far," spokeswoman Liz Burkhart said from the company's Austin headquarters.
the long term, the shutdown of the Sunland plant could cause some
temporary disruptions, but "we do not anticipate it affecting the
overall supply of organic peanut butter," said Patrick Archer, president
of the American Peanut Council in Alexandria, Va. "There are several
other processors who will fill the void in the market."
Where they'll get their peanuts isn't clear.
shortage shouldn't hit the nation's lunch sacks too hard. Organic
peanut butter is just 1% of the peanut butter market, Wagner said.
year Americans ate conventional peanut butter 7.6 billion times and
organic peanut butter 251 million times, according to market research
firm NPD Group of Port Washington, N.Y.
Exactly how much of the
organic peanut butter market Sunland controlledisn't known, but Wagner
said it is the largest manufacturer.
at PCC Natural Markets suggests other nut butters. She said,
"Alternatives including almond, sunflower, cashew, walnut, pecan and