FDA shuts down peanut butter factory after salmonella recalls

The FDA has suspended production at Sunland, Inc. after batches of the manufacturer's peanut butter was linked to a widespread salmonella outbreak and led to an expansive recall of Sunland nut products. The shutdown marks the first time the FDA has used new shutdown powers granted by the Food Safety Modernization Act. 

Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal/AP/FIle
This 2005 file photo shows the peanut butter production line at Sunland Inc.'s peanut plant in Portales, N.M. The FDA has suspended production at Sunland after peanut butter produced at its facilities was linked to a widespread outbreak of salmonella, spurring multiple recalls.

Nearly two years ago, President Obama signed a bill into law giving the Food and Drug Administration the authority to shut down food producers in the name of public health. Monday, the FDA wielded that power for the first time.

The agency has suspended production at Sunland, Inc., a large manufacturer of peanut butter, nut spreads, and hundreds of other nut-based products distributed in grocery stores throughout the United States. The company has issued ever-widening recalls of its wares throughout the fall, starting with peanut butter and growing to include 240 products sold at grocery stores nationwide.

Peanut butter produced by the New Mexico-based facility was linked to a widespread salmonella outbreak that sickened 41 people in 20 states. That,  “coupled with Sunland’s history of violations led FDA to make the decision to suspend the company’s registration,” the FDA’s statement on the shutdown reads.

Sunland’s troubles started in September, when the FDA issued a limited recall of certain batches of Trader Joe’s brand Valencia Creamy Salted Peanut Butter Made With Sea Salt. The recall expanded in subsequent weeks to include everything that came out of Sunland’s nut butter production facility between March 1, 2010 and September 24, 2010.

The FDA launched an investigation, and a review of the company’s records found salmonella in 11 batches of product over a span of three years: between June 2009 and December 2012. Sunland distributed products in spite of these findings, the FDA contends.

“Between March 2010 and September 2012, at least a portion of 8 product lots of nut butter that Sunland Inc.’s own testing program identified as containing Salmonella was distributed by the company to consumers,” the FDA statement reads.  

“Additionally, during its inspection of the plant in September and October 2012, the FDA 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.”

Then on Monday, the FDA suspended Sunland’s Food Facility Registration, prohibiting the company from distributing food until it 1) requests an informal hearing from the FDA, and 2) takes corrective measures to make its facilities safer. “The FDA will reinstate Sunland, Inc.’s registration only when the FDA determines that the company has implemented procedures to produce safe products.”

"Consumers can be assured that products will not leave this facility until we determine they have implemented preventive measures that are effective to produce safe products," Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, told the Associated Press.

The FDA’s power to halt production comes from the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011. The law required food handlers and distributors to register with the FDA and maintain food safety records. It also gave the FDA the power to suspend registration if a company’s products had a “reasonable probability” of posing health risks to consumers. Before, the FDA would have to go through court to suspend a registration.  

You can find the expansive list of recalled Sunland products on the FDA's website, here. Customers with affected products should throw them away or return them to stores for a full refund. 

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