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Nov 26, 2012 2:08 PM by JD Downing

Sunland Inc. will continue making peanut butter

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The New Mexico peanut butter company that was shuttered after a salmonella outbreak will reopen its peanut processing facility on Tuesday and hopes to be making peanut butter again by the end of the year, officials said.

Sunland Inc. spokeswoman Katalin Coburn said officials are eager to begin working on this year's crop, which is about 98 percent harvested.

"We have lots of peanuts in the barn, so it's time to start shelling," she said Monday. "Starting (Tuesday) I think we are beginning with one regular shift, then gearing up to do full-on four shifts."

The plant is located in the southeastern New Mexico town of Portales. The region is home to the prized Valencia peanut, which is favored for natural and organic peanut butter products because of its sweet flavor.

Wayne Baker, president of the New Mexico Peanut Grower's Association, said farmers are ready to put the uncertainty surrounding the shutdown behind them.

"The crop that we got in is just beautiful," he said. "They are the best peanuts we have had in a long time. ... So we are ready for this to be over. That one time in a lifetime is enough of that."

Coburn said processing is the simpler side of operations. The company hopes to have its peanut butter plant back in operation by the end of December, she said, contingent on approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Sunland Inc. is the nation's largest organic peanut butter processor, though it also produces many non-organic products.

The company recalled hundreds of nuts and nut butters manufactured since 2010 after one of its products, Trader Joe's Valencia Creamy Peanut Butter, was linked to 41 salmonella illnesses around the country in September.

FDA reports released this month showed that repeated agency inspections found problems at the plant since 2007, though government officials didn't take any action or release the results of those inspections until after the illnesses were discovered this year.

Sunland sold hundreds of different peanut products to many of the nation's largest grocery chains, including Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and Safeway. It also sold to large retailers like Target and Costco.

In a monthlong investigation in September and October, FDA inspectors found 28 different samples of salmonella in Sunland's plant. The agency also found improper handling of the products, unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside the facility that were exposed to rain and birds.

Company officials deny knowingly shipping tainted products, saying any products linked to contaminated tests were destroyed.

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