Federal Food and Drug Administration officials have suspended the food facility registration of a New Mexico peanut producer linked to more than 40 illnesses and the recall of vast quantities of peanuts and peanut butter from retailers such as Trader Joe's.
The suspension, announced Monday, is the first use of the FDA's new authority to suspend company operations under the Food Safety Modernization Act, which took effect in January 2011. It effectively prohibits Sunland Inc. of Portales, N.M., from introducing food into interstate or intrastate commerce.
"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 wrote in a statement.
Additionally, FDA officials found salmonella bacteria in 28 samples from surfaces in production or manufacturing areas during recent inspections, and in 13 nut butter samples and one sample of raw peanuts. The agency said that Sunland shipped portions of 11 lots of peanut and nut butters even though the firm's own internal inspection documents revealed that they were tainted with nine kinds of salmonella. The company denied shipping contaminated products.
FDA officials said they notified Sunland representatives in a letter Monday. Katalin Coburn, a Sunland vice president, said the move came as "a complete surprise."
She said Sunland officials were planning to restart peanut processing operations when they received notice of the suspension. Firm officials believed they had addressed all of FDA's concerns, she said.
"I don't view it as a stand-off," she said. "I know everyone at Sunland has been fully cooperating with the FDA."
The order offers Sunland the opportunity to request an informal hearing on certain issues related to the order, the FDA said. If, after the hearing, the FDA maintains the suspension, the agency will require Sunland to submit a corrective action plan to address current problems and implement a "sustainable solution" for the future. The firm's registration would be reinstated only when FDA determines the company has met those standards.