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FDA uses new authority to shut down peanut butter plant linked to outbreak

The Food and Drug Administration flexed a new muscle Monday by halting operations at a plant run by the nation’s largest organic peanut butter processor, according to the AP.

Sunland Inc. had planned to reopen its Portales, N.M., plant this week after closing the facility due to a September salmonella outbreak that sickened 41 people in 20 states. The illnesses were linked to peanut butter the company manufactured and sold at Trader Joe’s grocery outlets.

The FDA on Monday used its authority under a 2011 law to prevent Sunland from moving forward with its plans to reopen the New Mexico plant. The agency previously had to build a case and take companies to court before suspending their processing registration, but producers now bear the burden of proof to show that their products and operations are safe when the FDA decides to take action.

FDA inspectors found salmonella in 28 locations in Sunland’s New Mexico plant, as well as in 13 nut butter samples and in one sample of peanuts. Since 2007, they had also discovered multiple violations relating to the handling of products and equipment cleanliness, as well as uncovered trailers of peanuts exposed to rain and birds.

The FDA said Sunland shipped products despite positive internal tests for salmonella. Chief Executive Officer Jimmie Shearer said in a statement earlier this month that the company never knowingly shipped contaminated products.

The September salmonella outbreak was linked to Trader Joe’s Valencia Creamy Salted Peanut Butter. Sunland produces that product, as well as hundreds of other organic and non-organic nut products that sell at Target, Safeway, Whole Foods, and a host of other grocery chains.

The FDA has posted a list of Sunland’s recalled products on the agency’s Web site.

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Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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