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Salmonella: US FDA suspends operations of Sunland Inc.; alert in India
Wednesday, 28 November, 2012, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Abhitash Singh, Mumbai
Salmonella outbreaks have been dominating US headlines for sometime now but the latest strike by Salmonella Bredeney seems to be the deadliest as it has resulted in suspension of operations of one of the offending companies and USFDA alert on tainted products at an international level including India.

In the latest incident, the bacteria has sickened 41 people in 20 states in USA, and hence, apart from usual actions such as issuing food alerts and ordering recalls, this time the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA) has ensured suspension of operations of a peanut butter plant belonging to Sunland Inc. The company, a producer of nuts and seed spreads, also has a history of violations.

Interestingly, this was the USFDA’s first use of its registration suspension authority, under the new Food Safety Modernisation Act. This new authority enables the agency to take this action when food manufactured, processed, packed, received, or held by a facility has a reasonable probability of causing serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals, and other conditions are met.

As for the USFDA alert at international level and recall of products within USA, even India through its apex food authority – FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India), has been issued an alert on the companies and their products which are suspected to be tainted.

S N Mohanty, CEO, FSSAI, explained to FnB News, “The Salmonella outbreak has taken place in the US but we have asked the Indian importers to be alert and careful. Even though we have asked all the states’ food commissioners to be alert and check the products imported from Sunland Inc., there are chances of consignments coming in India through Malaysia and Philippines.”

However, Amit Lohani, convenor, Forum of Indian Food Importers (FIFI), differed, “The importers from India do not import the products from Sunland Inc. The outbreak of Salmonella will not have any impact on India.”

Yet worry remains for India as the alert issued by FSSAI mentions sales via Internet and other modern methods that are not easily traceable. Also the country’s poor food recall record is a cause of concern when it comes to ensuring that the tainted products belonging to Sunland as well as other companies are not sold or consumed.

Meanwhile, a review of Sunland Inc.’s product testing records pointed out that 11 product lots of nut butter showed the presence of Salmonella between June 2009 and September 2012. Between March 2010 and September 2012, at least a portion of 8 product lots of nut butter that Sunland Inc.’s own testing programme identified as containing Salmonella was distributed by the company to consumers.

Additionally, during its inspection of the plant in September and October 2012, the USFDA found the presence of Salmonella in 28 environmental samples (from surfaces in production or manufacturing areas) and in 13 nut butter product samples and one product sample of raw peanuts. Four of the peanut butter product samples showed the presence of the outbreak strain of Salmonella Bredeney.

The suspension order offers Sunland Inc. the opportunity to request an informal hearing on certain issues related to the order. If, after providing this opportunity, the USFDA determines that the suspension remains necessary, it will require Sunland, Inc. to submit a corrective action plan to address the immediate problems and implement a sustainable solution to those problems in a sound scientific manner. The USFDA will reinstate Sunland Inc.’s registration only when it determines that the company has implemented procedures to produce safe products.

The USFDA immediately put out a recall of the infected items. The alert now includes tahini, almond and cashew butters, and blanched and roasted peanut products which have been sold to large groceries and other food distributors across the US. Over 100 products are being recalled, some having been manufactured from as long ago as March 1, 2010, to those manufactured till September 24, 2012.

Further, the USFDA conducted an inspection and investigators found that conditions in the company’s facility, the company’s manufacturing processes, and the company’s testing programme for Salmonella may have allowed peanut butter that contained Salmonella to be distributed by the company. What was worse was that the manufacturing company had voluntarily sent out samples for sale, which they knew contained traces of Salmonella.

The USFDA found that between June 2009 and August 2012, Sunland had distributed, or cleared for distribution, portions of peanut or almond butter after its own testing programme identified the presence of at least one of nine different Salmonella types. An additional five product samples collected and analysed by USFDA from Sunland showed the presence of Salmonella which had not been picked up by the manufacturer. Among those products were peanut butter and shelled raw peanuts.

Salmonellosis is an infection with a bacterium called Salmonella. Most people infected with salmonella develop diarrhoea, fever and abdominal cramps. The elderly, infants and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe illness. Salmonella live in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals, including birds. Salmonella bacteria are usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal faeces. Contaminated foods usually look and smell normal. Raw foods of animal origin are frequently contaminated.

The USFDA investigators found that employees improperly handled equipment, containers, and utensils used to hold and store food. Employees handling peanut products wiped gloved hands on street clothes and other times failed to wash their hands or change gloves. There were no hand washing sinks in the peanut processing building production or packaging areas and employees had bare-handed contact with ready-to-package peanuts.

According to an estimate, Salmonella food poisoning causes infection in around 20 million people worldwide each year and is responsible for about 200,000 human deaths. It also infects farm animals and attaches to vegetables.
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