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FDA Restrains Peanut Plant

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The Food and Drug Administration halted operations of the country’s largest organic peanut butter processor in Portales Monday, cracking down on salmonella poisoning for the first time with the new enforcement authority the agency gained in a 2011 food safety law.

FDA officials found salmonella in multiple places at 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 Sunland plant and sold at Trader Joe’s grocery chain.

The FDA suspended Sunland’s registration Monday, 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. The FDA previously would have had to go to court to suspend a company’s registration.

Sunland had planned to reopen its peanut processing facility today and a spokeswoman said before the FDA’s announcement Monday that the company hoped to be selling peanut butter again by the end of the year. The spokeswoman didn’t have immediate comment on the suspension.

The company now has the right to a hearing and must prove to the agency that its facilities are clean enough to reopen.

Sunland Inc. is the nation’s largest organic peanut butter processor, although it also produces many non-organic products.

The company recalled hundreds of organic and non-organic nuts and nut butters 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 many of the nation’s other large grocery chains, including Whole Foods, Safeway, Target and others.

In a monthlong investigation in September and October, FDA inspectors found samples of salmonella in 28 different locations in the plant. The agency also found improper handling of the products and unclean equipment.

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