November 27, 2012 — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is using new enforcement powers to halt production at Sunland, Inc., the largest organic peanut butter processor in the United States. In September 2012, Sunland recalled hundreds of peanut products after they were linked to an outbreak of Salmonella that sickened at least 41 people in 20 states, mostly children. Less than two months after that recall, the company announced plans to reopen their facilities today. However, the FDA has decided to revoke Sunland’s registration, and they will require Sunland to prove their facilities are clean before they can resume operations.
In a month-long investigation, the FDA found multiple strains of Salmonella in 28 locations in the plant. Another 13 samples of nut butter and one sample of raw peanuts also tested positive for the pathogen. Inspectors found evidence of unclean equipment, improper handling of products, and uncovered trailers filled with peanuts exposed to rain and bird droppings, according to the Associated Press.
A law passed in 2011 granted the FDA authority to suspend a food processing company’s registration, which prevents them from producing or distributing any food. Before the 2011 law was enacted, the FDA would have had to go through the courts to suspend a company’s registration. The FDA’s suspension of processing at Sunland is the first time the FDA has used its new authority.
In the past, FDA investigators have found many food safety violations — including employees putting bare fingers in empty jars before they were filled. Problems were noted during inspections in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011, but the FDA did not suspend operations at Sunland or make the results of those investigations public.
The FDA also found evidence that Sunland continued distributing peanut products after they tested positive for Salmonella contamination on multiple occasions during the past three years. Furthermore, internal tests from the company failed to find Salmonella in samples that were contaminated with the pathogen.
Salmonella is a bacteria that thrives in the intestinal tract of people and animals. It is usually transmitted to food that is contaminated by animal feces or sewage water. When the bacteria is ingested, it can cause an acute gastrointestinal disease called salmonellosis, characterized by severe diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, fever, headache, and malaise. Most healthy adults recover from the illness within a week, but it can be deadly for young children, the elderly, or people with compromised immune systems.
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