WASHINGTON — The federal government ordered the nation’s largest organic peanut butter processor closed on Monday following a string of salmonella-related illnesses in 20 states.
The Food and Drug Administration ordered the Sunland, Inc. processing plant in New Mexico closed on Monday. The plant produced organic peanut butter for the Trader Joe’s grocery store chain, as well as peanut products sold at Whole Foods, Safeway, Target and other retailers.
Investigators traced an outbreak of salmonella poisoning that affected 41 people – mostly children – in 20 states this fall to the Sunland plant as inspectors found samples of salmonella in 28 different locations across the plant, including 13 peanut butter samples and in one sample of raw peanuts.
In addition, investigators found improper food handling techniques, unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside that had been exposed to rain and birds.
The FDA claims that it found the same problems in earlier inspections dating back to 2007, but did not act. A 2011 food safety law gave the agency the enforcement power to shut a plant down.
In a statement released earlier this month, Sunland denied knowingly shipping tainted 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,” said the statement on the company’s website.