The Food and Drug Administration has halted operations at the country’s largest organic peanut butter processing plant on Monday in an effort to crack down on salmonella poisoning.
The move is the first that the FDA has made since the agency was granted new enforcement authority in a 2011 food safety law, reports USA Today.
FDA officials discovered the harmful bacteria all over Sunland Inc.’s processing plant in New Mexico after 41 people in 20 states became ill after consuming peanut butter.
All of the peanut butter was manufactured at the Sunland plant, then sold at Trader Joe’s grocery stores around the country. The majority of those sickened were children.
In response, the FDA revoked Sunland’s registration on Monday, a move that prevents the company from producing or distributing and food.
The FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, Michael Taylor, stated that the FDA’s new ability to suspend a registration, like in the case of Sunland, is a big step forward for better regulation, notes The Washington Post. Taylor added:
“Consumers can be assured that products will not leave this facility until we determine that they have implemented preventative measures that are effective to produce safe products.”
Sunland Inc. is currently the nation’s largest producer of organic peanut butter. It also produces several non-organic products. The company has recalled several hundred organic and non-organic products manufactured since 2010 after they were linked to salmonella.
During an inspection of the facility, FDA officials discovered salmonella samples in 28 different locations inside the plant. They also found samples in 13 different peanut butters, as well as in one batch of raw peanuts. The agency also discovered unsafe handling procedures, unclean equipment, and uncovered trailers of peanuts sitting outside the facility, which were exposed to birds and rain.
In a statement given earlier this month, Sunland’s president and CEO, Jimmie Shearer, denied that they knowingly shipped contaminated products. Shearer wrote:
“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 products was destroyed and not released for distribution.”
But investigators for the FDA uncovered that the company shipped several products in the past three years, even though portions of their lots tested positive for salmonella in internal tests. The FDA also uncovered that the plant’s internal tests were not able to find salmonella when it was present.