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FDA Shuts Down Peanut Butter Production After Salmonella Outbreak

Elysia Rodriguez |
November 28, 2012 | 8:41 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Peanuts (Melissa Bernais / Flickr)
Peanuts (Melissa Bernais / Flickr)

The largest organic peanut butter processor was forced to suspend operations Monday by the Food and Drug Administration following a salmonella outbreak and a number of health code violations. 

At least 41 people, most of whom are children, in 20 states have been infected with salmonella after eating peanut butter manufactured by Sunland Inc. and sold by grocery chain Trader Joe's.

Back in September, the New Mexico plant had voluntarily closed down and recalled a number of peanut and almond butter products made after 2010 following the salmonella outbreak. They had planned to reopen for business Tuesday and hoped to begin selling products again by the end of the year.

The suspension of Sunland’s registration is the first time the FDA has put into effect the new food safety law signed last year, which allows the FDA to take direct action if they detect “reasonable probability” of a health threat. 

A number of serious health code violations had been found during a month-long federal investigation beginning in September. 

Investigators found samples of salmonella in 28 different locations in the plant, 13 nut butter samples and in one sample of raw peanuts. They also discovered that Sunland’s internal testing had failed to detect the bacteria in their nut products, which had, in same cases, been cleared and distributed.  

Open bags of ingredients, unclean equipment and uncovered trailers that exposed nuts to rain and birds were all found within the company’s facilities. 

Employees reportedly put bare fingers in jars prior to filling and handled ready-to-package peanuts with their bare hands. Investigators also noted that there were no sinks in production and packaging areas for employees to wash their hands. 

Sunland’s president and chief executive, Jimmie Shearer, defended his company and their products in a statement found on the company’s site. 

Shearer said, "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… In every instance where test results indicated the presence of a contaminant, the implicated product was destroyed and not released for distribution."

Shearer also has said that Sunland is cooperating with the FDA and has already submitted a response addressing the issues and concerns brought up in the FDA’s reports.  

The company sold a number of both organic and non-organic products to a number of large grocery chains including Whole Foods, Safeway and Target. 

Due to their long shelf lives, many infected products could potentially still be in consumers’ homes and health officials advise them to avoid eating any of these products.

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