FDA Suspends Operations at Peanut Butter Plant
WASHINGTON - The Food and Drug Administration is cracking down on a New Mexico peanut butter plant that had repeated food safety violations over several years, using new authority to halt operations at facilities that may be producing unsafe food.
The agency on Monday suspended the registration of Sunland Inc., which is the country’s largest organic peanut butter processor. FDA officials found salmonella in numerous locations in Sunland’s processing plant after 41 people in 20 states, most of them children, were sickened by peanut butter manufactured at the Portales, N.M., plant and sold at the Trader Joe’s grocery chain. The company had announced plans to reopen its peanut processing facility on Tuesday after voluntarily shutting down earlier this fall.
The FDA gained the new authority to suspend companies’ registrations in a food safety law signed by President Barack Obama in early 2011, and this is the first time the agency has used it. The ability to shut down the company’s operations is a step forward in an FDA effort to stem a growing number of widespread outbreaks like the salmonella illnesses linked to the peanut butter, said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods.
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," Taylor said, stressing that the burden will now be on the company to prove it is safe.
Sunland had 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 and Sunland officials had assumed they would be allowed to resume operations.
The company now has the right to a hearing and must prove to the agency that its facilities are clean enough to reopen. Coburn said Sunland is cooperating with the FDA and company officials hope they can be operating again soon.
Besides organic 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 was linked to the salmonella illnesses in September.