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FDA Closes Peanut Butter Plant Linked to Salmonella

George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Food and Drug Administration Monday shut down the country’s largest organic peanut butter processor following a salmonella outbreak that sickened scores of people nationwide.

For the first time the FDA has utilized new power granted by the 2011 food safety law and shut down Sunland Inc.’s New Mexico processing plant.

In a statement on their website, the FDA said that the link between the company and the salmonella outbreak that sickened 41 people in 20 states along with “Sunland’s history of violations led FDA to make the decision to suspend the company’s registration.”

Between June 2000 and September 2012 11 product lots of nut butter tested positive for presence of salmonella. And, according to the FDA, between March 2010 and September 2012, Sunland Inc. distributed at least a portion of eight product lots after they had tested positive.

The FDA also found the presence of salmonella in 28 environmental samples during a September and October 2012 inspection.  FDA inspectors reported that employees of Sunland Inc. failed to wash hands, improperly handled equipment used to process food as well as providing "no records” to document cleaning of equipment. Additionally, the building housing the production and packaging had no hand-washing sinks even though employees had “bare-handed contact” with the product.

“The super-sized bags used by the firm to store peanuts were not cleaned despite being used for both raw and roasted peanuts.  There was a leaking sink in a washroom which resulted in water accumulating on the floor, and the plant is not built to allow floors, walls and ceilings to be adequately cleaned."

"Finally, investigators found that raw materials were exposed to potential contamination.  Raw, in-shell peanuts were found outside the plant in uncovered trailers. Birds were observed landing in the trailers and the peanuts were exposed to rain, which provides a growth environment for salmonella and other bacteria.  Inside the warehouse, facility doors were open to the outside, which could allow pests to enter.”

In a Nov. 15 statement the president and CEO of Sunland, Jimmie Shearer, emphasized that at “no time” did the company distribute products they knew to be contaminated. The company has submitted a statement to the FDA outlining their response to the recall and contaminated product testing.

“We believe that drawing any inferences much less conclusions about the Company’s practices based solely on the observations as set forth in the Form 483 without considering the Company’s response would be wholly premature and unduly prejudicial to Sunland.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act, which the FDA acted under to shut down the plant, grants the agency the authority to suspend manufacturing when there is “reasonable probability of causing serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals, and other conditions are met.”

Sunland Inc., can request an informal hearing to lift the suspension.  However the 24-year-old company will only have its registration returned after the FDA decides the company has safe manufacturing practices.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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