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Poor Hygiene Prompts Shutdown of Peanut Butter Co.

Sunland planned to reopen its plant on Tuesday after recalling dozens of nut products that made people ill across the nation.

FDA officials suspended peanut production at a New Mexico plant (AP)
FDA officials suspended peanut production at a New Mexico plant (AP)
The Food and Drug Administration invoked a 2011 food safety law for the first time in order to stop operations Monday at a peanut butter processing plant.

Peanut butter produced at the New Mexico plant of Sunland, Inc., and sold at Trader Joe's, Fresh & Easy and other grocery stores has been linked to more than 41 people in 21 states - most of them children - falling ill from salmonella poisoning.

With its registration suspended, Sunland cannot produce or distribute food products, lengthening an existing halt on peanut butter manufacturing after reports of salmonella contamination first surfaced in the late summer. Sunland - the nation's largest organic food processor - had planned to reopen its New Mexico plant on Tuesday, with a late 2012 target to resume selling peanut butter.

The FDA's suspending Sunland's registration marks the first time that the government agency has unilaterally halted a business's food production operations. The FDA can only suspend a registration when it believes food manufactured at a facility has a 'reasonable probability' of causing health problems or death. Previously, the regulatory agency had to seek the court's intervention to stop an unsafe food production operation.

"Consumers can be assured that products will not leave this facility until we determine they have implemented preventive measures that are effective to produce safe products," said FDA deputy commissioner Michael Taylor.

In order to resume peanut butter production, Sunland must verify the sound hygiene of its facilities. The food processor also has a right to a hearing to contest the agency's findings.

Salmonella illnesses prompted Sunland to recall hundreds of organic and non-organic nuts and nut butters it produced, dating back to 2010.

FDA investigations in September and October revealed positive testing for salmonella in 28 locations at Sunland's New Mexico plant, as well as in 13 nut butter samples. Investigations also revealed unsafe handling of food products and dirty equipment. The agency also cited the company for outdoor, exposed storage facilities that left food vulnerable to rain and birds.

The FDA said that internal tests at Sunland indicated positive testing for salmonella in food products, and that other testing mechanisms utilized by the company did not detect salmonella when it was actually present.

Sunland said in a statement earlier in November that it did not knowingly ship harmful products.

"At no time in its 24-year history has Sunland, Inc. released for distribution any products that it knew to be potentially contaminated with harmful microorganisms," Sunland president and CEO Jimmie Shearer said in a statement on the company's website.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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