The Latest | Southern California breaking news and trends

FDA flexes new food safety law to shut down Trader Joe's peanut butter plant

Photo by Bill Keaggy via Flickr Creative Commons

In September, more than 70 types of peanut butter and almond butter were folded into a large-scale recall of Trader Joe's Creamy Salted Valencia Peanut Butter after 29 salmonella illnesses in 18 states were linked to that product.

On Monday, the peanut butter manufacturing facility — the largest organic processor in the country — was effectively shut down by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when the agency flexed its new food law authority and suspended the company's required registration.

Says the FDA:

In the interest of protecting public health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suspended the food facility registration of Sunland Inc., a producer of nuts, and nut and seed spreads...

...The fact that peanut butter made by the company has been linked to an outbreak of Salmonella Bredeney that has sickened 41 people in 20 states, coupled with Sunland’s history of violations led FDA to make the decision to suspend the company’s registration.  

The FDA was able to halt plant operations by way of the Food Safety Modernization Act — a measure they call "the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years" — which was signed into law by President Obama in 2011. 

The new food safety measure gave the FDA authority to suspend Sunland's registration based on "reasonable probability" of causing serious health problems or death. Previously, the FDA would have had to go to court.

The plant, which also produced hundreds of different organic and non-organic peanut products for Whole Foods, Safeway, Target and other large grocery chains, closed voluntarily after the September poisoning episodes, but planned to reopen on Tuesday, reports the Associated Press.

Sunland's Katalin Coburn said FDA's decision to suspend the registration was a surprise to the company and Sunland officials had assumed they were allowed to resume operations. The company now has the right to a hearing and must prove to the agency that its facilities are clean enough to reopen. 

According to the AP, FDA inspectors found that Sunland shipped products that tested positive for salmonella, and that the company also ran tests that failed to find salmonella when it was present. The agency reported the presence of Salmonella in 28 different locations at the plant, in 13 nut butters samples, and in a sample of raw peanuts. 

They also reported open bags of ingredients, unclean equipment, employees putting bare fingers into empty jars before they were filled, and trailers of uncovered peanuts exposed to rain and birds outside the facility.

Many of the same violations were noted in inspections dating back to 2007, however government officials did not take action or release the inspection results until after the illnesses were discovered this year, notes the AP.

Earlier this month, Sunland's president and chief executive officer, Jimmie Shearer, denied in a statement that the company ever knowingly shipped tainted products.