WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration closed the nation's largest organic peanut butter processor after a salmonella outbreak sickened dozens in 20 states.
"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 agency said Monday in a release. "If a facility's registration is suspended, that facility is prohibited from introducing food into interstate or intrastate commerce."
The FDA said its decision was based on Sunland's history of violations and the fact that the peanut butter it produced "has been linked to an outbreak of Salmonella Bredeney that has sickened 41 people in 20 states ... ."
It was the first use of the agency's registration suspension authority granted under the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA said.
Numerous companies have issued product recalls after New Mexico-based Sunland issued a recall of its peanut butter and other nut butter products in September.
A review of Sunland Inc.'s product testing records indicated 11 product lots of nut butter showed the presence of Salmonella between June 2009 and September, the FDA said. Between March 2010 and September, at least a portion of 8 product lots of nut butter that Sunland Inc.'s own testing program identified as containing Salmonella was distributed by the company to consumers.
During inspections in September and October, the FDA found Salmonella present in 28 environmental samples and in 13 nut butter product samples and one product sample of raw peanuts, the release said.
FDA inspectors also found Sunland employees failed to wash their hands, improperly handled food processing equipment and didn't provide records to document equipment cleaning. Also, the building housing production and packaging lacked hand-washing sinks.
Inspectors found that 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," the FDA said in its release. "Inside the warehouse, facility doors were open to the outside, which could allow pests to enter."
In a Nov. 15 statement, Sunland President and Chief Executive Officer Jimmie Shearer stressed that at "no time" did the company distribute products it knew to be contaminated, ABC News said. The company has submitted a response to the FDA outlining its response to the recall and contaminated product testing.
The federal agency said Sunland can request a hearing to lift the suspension but will have its registration restored only after the FDA decides the company has product safety procedures in place.