Could the United States be facing an organic peanut butter shortage?The New Mexico processor that owns 90% of this year's organic peanutharvest has had its production license revoked by the Food and DrugAdministration. Now supermarkets are bracing for a possible shortage.
SunlandInc. 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 hadhoped to reopen its peanut shelling facility this week, but the FDAannounced Monday that it was shutting the company down.
An FDAaudit released earlier this month found salmonella in 28 locations inthe plant and examples of improper handling, unclean equipment andpositive salmonella tests that the company ignored.
The companysaid in a written statement on Nov. 15, "At no time in its 24-yearhistory has Sunland Inc. released for distribution any products that itknew to be potentially contaminated with harmful microorganisms."
Theagency's ability to close the plant without a court order was part ofits new authority under the Food Safety Modernization Act, which becamelaw in January 2011.
With this year's organic Valencia peanutharvest just finished, the company has "millions of pounds" of peanutsin its barns that it can't grind because of the shutdown, and the peanutbutter that was already made had to be destroyed, said Sunlandspokeswoman Katalin Coburn.
"We've essentially destroyedeverything that was in the market and in our inventory," she said. Theone bright spot is that the newly harvested peanuts have a long shelflife in temperature-controlled barns and will keep for a year, she said.
Inthe Seattle area, PCC Natural Markets anticipates that demand willexceed supply. "We have not been contacted by our organic peanut buttersuppliers regarding a shortage but expect that will be the case in thenear future," said Diana Chapman, the natural food market chain'sdirector of sustainability.
Some stores are probably feeling thepinch already, said Leslie Wagner, executive director of the SouthernPeanut Growers in Canton, Ga.
"Since Sunland has been shut downfor two months and all the products have been recalled, we have strongreason to believe that the market impact has already been felt in termsof availability of organic peanut butter," Wagner said.
Naturalfoods behemoth Whole Foods Market says it is "business as usual" in itsstores 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.
Overthe long term, the shutdown of the Sunland plant could cause sometemporary disruptions, but "we do not anticipate it affecting theoverall supply of organic peanut butter," said Patrick Archer, presidentof the American Peanut Council in Alexandria, Va. "There are severalother processors who will fill the void in the market."
Where they'll get their peanuts isn't clear.
Theshortage shouldn't hit the nation's lunch sacks too hard. Organicpeanut butter is just 1% of the peanut butter market, Wagner said.
Lastyear Americans ate conventional peanut butter 7.6 billion times andorganic peanut butter 251 million times, according to market researchfirm NPD Group of Port Washington, N.Y.
Exactly how much of theorganic peanut butter market Sunland controlledisn't known, but Wagnersaid it is the largest manufacturer.
Chapmanat PCC Natural Markets suggests other nut butters. She said,"Alternatives including almond, sunflower, cashew, walnut, pecan andcoconut."