PORTALES, N.M. — A New Mexico-based peanut butter manufacturer was forced to halt all its operations following an investigation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which linked the company”s processing plant to a Salmonella outbreak, the regulator announced in a statement.
Sunland Inc., headquartered in Portales, N.M., and considered the biggest organic peanut butter processor in the United States, has had its registration suspended by the regulator. The move came as FDA officials found that conditions at the Portales processing plant may have contributed to the contamination of peanut butter and almond butter products with Salmonella Bredeney, which resulted in more than 40 people from 20 states being infected with the disease in June. In a letter to the company, the regulator stated that all food manufactured, processed, packed and stored at the Portales plant is considered potentially able to cause “serious adverse health consequences or death.” Distribution of products from the plant has been halted until the FDA decides on further action.
Immediately after the outbreak was linked to Sunland in September, the company recalled all products from the Portales plant. During the investigation the FDA also discovered a number of health violations at the processing plant. Sunland will be allowed to continue operating once the FDA sees that the company is working on the implementation of safe production measures, the statement said. This is the first time that the FDA has used its new powers to suspend registrations under the Food Safety Modernization Act that came into effect last year. Previously, the FDA had to go to court to have a company”s registration suspended, which made the whole process significantly more complicated.
The report from the agency revealed that employees at the plant failed to ensure proper handling of utensils and containers. Furthermore, the FDA found serious sanitation issues, including lack of sinks for workers to wash their hands, both in the production and packaging areas. Employees were also noticed handling unpackaged production with their bare hands.
Moreover, officials stated that Sunland kept no record of whether and when the equipment was cleaned and if different bags were used for storing raw and roasted products, as required. Quantities of raw peanuts were discovered stored in open containers outdoors, exposed to various weather conditions and to birds, the FDA noted in its report.
The FDA pointed out that although Sunland had presented the regulator with a plan for safety measures to be implemented, it failed to account for “significant details” which meant that the FDA could not approve the corrective action plan.
According to Katalin Coburn, spokeswoman for Sunland, the FDA”s decision to suspend its registration was unexpected, as the company has voluntarily closed the plant and has been working closely with the agency to ensure safety requirements are met. She added that the company hoped the plant would soon be allowed to return to its business.