FDA Enacts Authority And Shuts Down Peanut Maker Linked To Salmonella Outbreak
November 27, 2012

FDA Enacts Authority And Shuts Down Peanut Maker Linked To Salmonella Outbreak

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A peanut butter processing plant that has been at the center of a Salmonella outbreak is having its doors closed by federal regulators after countless contaminations have been found throughout the company´s facility.

For the first time in agency history, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enacted its authority to shut down Sunland Inc. of Portales, New Mexico. The facility is directly connected to the Salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 41 people (mostly children) across 20 states. Without a proper FDA registration, Sunland would be prohibited from selling any products in the US.

A 2011 law–the US Food and Safety Modernization Act–has given the FDA authority to suspend registrations at Sunland, the country´s largest peanut butter processor. The registration was suspended on Monday, preventing the company from producing or distributing any more food.

The law allows the FDA to suspend registrations only when there is a “reasonable probability” that a company´s practices are contributing to serious health problems or death. Before the law was enacted last year, the FDA had to get court approval before it could suspend a registration.

The agency said the registration was suspended due to the recent outbreak and a history of health violations. FDA officials said the company has had Salmonella issues for years, including multiple instances of environmental contamination from at least nine different strains of the bacteria.

“A review of Sunland Inc.´s product testing records showed that 11 product lots of nut butter showed the presence of Salmonella between June 2009 and September 2012,” an FDA statement said, according to Food Safety News. “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.”

During September 2012 inspections of the facility, the FDA found Salmonella in 28 environmental samples, 13 nut butter samples, and one sample of raw peanuts. Four of the nut butter samples contained Salmonella bredeney, the strain linked to the current outbreak. Sunland maintains that none of its contaminated products made it out of the facility and was destroyed.

“At no time in its 24-year history has Sunland, Inc. released for distribution any products that it knew to be potentially contaminated with harmful microorganisms,” President and CEO Jimmie Shearer wrote in a statement on the company´s website.

Sunland voluntarily ceased operations after the announcement of the outbreak in September. According to a report by the Associated Press, Sunland had planned to start processing again on Tuesday, November 27, with the goal of making peanut butter again by the end of the year. However, the FDA move shot down any hopes of that happening.

Sunland has the right to a hearing and must prove to the agency that its facilities are clean and ready to reopen. An FDA spokesperson told Food Safety News that Sunland will not be allowed to sell any products until it proves it has “implemented procedures to produce safe products.”

If the company does not get FDA approval in a hearing, it must submit a “corrective action plan” to mitigate its problems scientifically.

Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said: “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.”

The recent Salmonella outbreak comes close to four years after peanut products manufactured at another company–Peanut Corporation of America–sickened more than 700 people across 46 states. That outbreak was linked to Salmonella typhimurium.

According to Kenneth Kendrick, a former assistant manager at Peanut Corporation´s Texas facility, Sunland supplied organic Valencia peanuts to Peanut Corporation around the time of the 2009 outbreak.

The FDA said none of the nine Salmonella strains detected in Sunland´s facilities were typhimurium, and no evidence exists to suggest a connection between Sunland and Peanut Corp´s outbreak.

However, Kendrick said the FDA should have been more proactive in investigating Peanut Corp´s suppliers after such a massive outbreak.

“There´s no excuse for the FDA not to have investigated Sunland back in 2009,” Kendrick said to Food Safety News. “They were all over Peanut Corp´s shipping records – their suppliers should have been looked at.”

Sunland is the nation´s largest organic peanut butter processor, yet it also produces many non-organic products. The company has recalled hundreds of nuts and nut butters manufactured since 2010 after Valencia Creamy Peanut Butter sold by Trader Joe´s was linked to the September illnesses from Salmonella poisoning.

In addition to Trader Joe´s, Sunland sold hundreds of peanut products to other large grocery chains, including Whole Foods, Safeway and Target.