The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced Monday that it has blocked food distribution from the Sunland Inc. peanut butter plant in New Mexico whose products were subject to a wide recall in recent months because of salmonella contamination.
The various types of Sunland peanut butter products—sold under several brands by major food retailers, including Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Sprouts, Target and Safeway—had been part of a voluntary recall that began in September and later expanded to include other nut butters as well as processed nuts and peanuts.
The FDA action announced Monday is a mandatory order.
The company's nut products have been "linked to an outbreak of Salmonella Bredeney that has sickened 41 people in 20 states," the FDA said.
Of the 41 sickened, 28 percent were hospitalized, according to the most recent report on the outbreak from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seven of the infected people were from California.
According to the Associated Press:
During a month-long investigation, after the outbreak linked to processor Sunland and to Trader Joe's, FDA inspectors found samples of salmonella in 28 different locations in [Sunland's New Mexico] plant, in 13 nut butter samples and in one sample of raw peanuts.
The agency also found improper handling of the products, unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside the facility that were exposed to rain and birds.
The voluntary recall began after salmonella was detected in a lot of Trader Joe’s Valencia Creamy Salted Peanut Butter, which had an SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) number 97111, according to the FDA. Only certain lots were affected by the recall.
Sunland is the nation's largest processor of organic peanut butter products, AP reported. Sunland's nut products are not exclusively organic.
The FDA order—which suspends the registration of the plant in Portales, NM, and prohibits it from distributing food for sale—marks the first time the agency has invoked its new authority to suspend the registration of a food production facility, the FDA said. The authority was granted under the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in January last year.
Sunland had ceased operations at the plant and intended to restart Tuesday in hopes of resuming sales of peanut butter products by the end of this year, according to AP.
Sunland officials said they were surprised by the federal order, are cooperating with the FDA and hope to be back in operation soon, the AP reported.
The FDA said the widespread illnesses "coupled with Sunland’s history of violations led FDA to make the decision to suspend the company’s registration."
The FDA also cited Sunland's own testing results showing salmonella in 11 product lots of nut butter between June 2009 and September 2012.