The FDA forced Sunland Inc. to shut down operations after finding salmonella at the company's New Mexico plant. Sunland, the country's largest peanut butter manufacturer, became the focus of an FDA investigation after people started getting sick from eating the company's contaminated peanut and almond butter products. The CDC reported that 41 people in twenty states fell ill with salmonella poisoning.
In September 2012, Trader Joe's removed Creamy Salted Valencia Peanut Butter from its shelves after the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) informed the store chain there was a link between its peanut butter and reports of salmonella illness. The FDA found out that the salmonella poisoning stemmed from products made at Sunland's New Mexico-based plant. Retailers such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and Whole Foods were advised to stop selling the products that could have possibly been affected by the salmonella strain. Nearly 400 items were recalled.
On November 26, 2012, the FDA suspended Sunland, Inc.'s food-facility registration. Sunland is not authorized to make or distribute any additional food products until further notice from the FDA. Sunland voluntarily shut down operations earlier this fall while the FDA and CDC performed their respective investigations. The company originally planned on reopening the plant by the last week of November. Obviously, that is not going to happen in light of the FDA's recent actions.
The FDA performed a month-long investigation to find out what caused the salmonella outbreak. Salmonella was found in 28 different locations throughout Sunland's food processing plant in New Mexico. Salmonella was also traced in one raw peanut sample and thirteen nut butter samples. While the peanuts were outside the facility, they were uncovered and exposed in a manner that made it possible for salmonella and other types of bacteria to grow.
The FDA also reported that Sunland committed numerous food safety violations during investigations conducted in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011. Investigators didn't find any records verifying that the production equipment was cleaned on a regular basis. Employees did not wash their hands and sometimes didn't use gloves while handling the products. Equipment, utensils, containers and food were not handled properly. Based on the FDA's latest investigation and Sunland's failure to properly address previous violations, the agency decided to shut down Sunland's operations for the public's safety.
Sunland has the right to request a hearing regarding the suspension. The company can also submit a plan that states how corrective measures will be implemented and sustained if it wants to have the registration reinstated.
The FDA was able to stop Sunland from continuing food production based on the authority granted to the agency under the Food Safety Modernization Act. The new food safety law was enacted in 2011. Now the FDA can suspend a company's registration based on reasonable probability that its actions will cause serious harm or death. Previously, the FDA had to go to court and get an order from a judge in order to shut down a company's operations. Hopefully, the FDA will be able to curb the growth of other harmful outbreaks in the future by being diligent and exercising its new authority.
Special thanks to Attorney Darren Finebloom.