WASHINGTON—The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has halted operations of the largest organic peanut butter processor in the U.S., cracking down on salmonella poisoning for the first time with new enforcement authority the agency gained in a 2011 food safety law.
FDA officials found salmonella all over Sunland Inc.’s New Mexico processing plant after 41 people in 20 states, most of them children, were sickened by peanut butter manufactured at the plant in Portales and sold by Trader Joe’s grocery chain.
The FDA suspended Sunland’s registration, preventing the company from producing or distributing any food.
The food safety law gave the FDA authority to suspend a company’s registration when food manufactured or held there has a “reasonable probability” of causing serious health problems or death.
Before the food safety law was enacted early last year, the FDA would have had to go to court to suspend a company’s registration.
Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, said the agency’s ability to suspend a registration like this one is a major step forward for the agency.
Sunland had voluntarily closed its plant after a September outbreak and planned to reopen its peanut processing facility Nov. 27, with hopes of selling peanut butter again by the end of the year.
Sunland’s Katalin Coburn said the FDA’s decision to suspend the registration was a surprise to the company and Sunland officials had assumed they were allowed to resume operations.
Sunland is the nation’s largest organic peanut butter processor, though it also produces many non-organic products.
The company recalled hundreds of organic and non-organic nut butters and nuts manufactured since 2010 after Trader Joe’s Valencia Creamy Peanut Butter was linked to the salmonella illnesses in September.
In addition to Trader Joe’s, Sunland sold hundreds of different peanut products to Whole Foods, Safeway, Target and other large grocery chains.
The FDA said that over the past three years, the company shipped products even though portions of their lots, or daily production runs, tested positive for salmonella in internal tests.
The agency also found that the internal tests failed to find salmonella when it was present.
A separate peanut butter outbreak in 2009 not related to Sunland was linked to hundreds of illnesses and nine deaths.