The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is cracking down on the country's largest peanut butter plant, which has had repeated food safety violations over several years with facilities possibly producing unsafe food.
The agency on Monday suspended the registration of Sunland Inc. in New Mexico. FDA officials discovered salmonella in numerous locations in Sunland’s processing plant after 41 people in 20 states were sickened by peanut butter manufactured at the Portales, N.M., plant. Most of those sickened were children and the product was sold at the Trader Joe’s grocery chain.
The FDA gained new authority to suspend Sunland Inc.’s registration in a food safety law signed by President Barack Obama in early 2011. This is the first time the agency has used it. According to Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, the ability to shut down the company’s operations is a step forward in an effort to stem a growing number of widespread outbreak like the salmonella illnesses linked to the peanut butter.
Before the food safety law was enacted, the FDA would have had to go to court to suspend a company’s registration.
“We would have had to go to court and build a case,” explained Taylor, stressing that the burden will now be on the company to prove it is safe.
Sunland closed its peanut processing facility after the September outbreak. It planned to reopen this week with hopes of selling peanut butter again by the end of the year. Sunland spokeswoman Katalin Coburn said the FDA’s decision to suspend the registration was a surprise to the company. Sunland officials assumed they would be allowed to resume operations.
Sunland has the right to a hearing and must prove to the FDA that its facilities are clean enough to reopen. Coburn said Sunland is cooperating with the FDA and company officials hope they can begin operating again soon.
In addition to peanut butter, Sunland also produces many non-organic products. The company recalled hundreds of organic and non-organic nut butters and nuts manufactured since 2010 after Trader Joe’s Valencia Creamy Peanut Butter were linked to the salmonella illnesses in September. Sunland also sold hundreds of different peanut butter products to Target, Safeway, Whole Foods and other large grocery chains. Many of the grocery stores repackaged Sunland products, selling them under their own names.
After the outbreak linked to Sunland and Trader Joe’s, FDA inspectors found salmonella in 28 different locations in the plant, in 13 nut butter samples and in one sample of raw peanuts. The agency also found improper handling of products, unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts that were exposed to rain and birds outside the facility.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.