A peanut butter plant shuttered by a widespread salmonella outbreak has been given the go ahead to start harvesting a bumper crop of prized eastern New Mexico Valencia peanuts next week under an agreement that ends a tense, monthslong standoff with federal regulators.
A consent decree filed in federal court Friday says Sunland Inc. can reopen its plant in Portales if it hires an independent expert to develop a sanitation plan, which then must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Conditions at the plant, which is the largest organic peanut butter producer in the country, prompted the FDA in November to use new authority for the first time to revoke the company's operating certificate without a court hearing. The action came after the plant was linked to a salmonella outbreak that sickened 42 people in 20 states this fall.
Friday's filing reinstates Sunland's food facility registration. But the company cannot process or distribute food from its peanut butter or peanut mill plants in Portales until it has complied with the consent decree's requirements and receives written authorization from the FDA.
"This consent decree prohibits Sunland from selling processed foods to consumers until it fully complies with the law," Stuart F. Delery, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil division, said in a statement. "As this case demonstrates, the Department of Justice and FDA will work together to protect the health and safety of Americans by making sure that those who produce and sell the food we eat follow the law."
Sunland said the agreement came after it "provided additional information to FDA to demonstrate that recommended actions have been taken and required corrective actions are being implemented."
Sunland spokeswoman Katalin Coburn said that after the decree was filed, the FDA gave the plant permission to reopen its peanut processing facility while it works on the plan for reopening the peanut butter plant. She said work will resume the day after Christmas.
The Sunland plant was shuttered and hundreds of its products recalled in September and October after the salmonella outbreak was linked to Trader Joe's Valencia peanut butter manufactured at Sunland.
The recall and plant shuttering came as the region was finishing a bumper harvest of the prized Valencia peanuts grown almost exclusively in the region. The peanuts are favored for organic and natural peanut-butter products because of their sweet flavor, which requires few additives.
Sunland produces products for a number of national grocery and retail chains, and New Mexico Peanut Growers Association President Wayne Baker says the industry generates about $60 million in the region each year.
The FDA took the unusual step in November of revoking Sunland's registration just as the plant was hoping to reopen its processing plant to begin work on the millions of pounds of Valencia peanuts piled up in barns after this year's harvest.
The action was denounced as unfair and unnecessarily heavy-handed by many in the conservative farm town of Portales, where Sunland is the largest private employer. At the end of November, the plant had laid off about 30 percent of its 150 workers. Coburn said she was unsure how quickly the laid-off workers would be recalled.
The FDA said inspectors found samples of salmonella in 28 different locations in the plant, in 13 nut butter samples and in one sample of raw peanuts. Inspectors found improper handling of the products, unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside the facility that were exposed to rain and birds. Inspectors also said employees lacked access to hand-washing sinks, and dirty hands had direct contact with ready-to-package peanuts.
The FDA said it inspected the plant at least four times over the past five years, each time finding violations. Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said the agency's inspections after the outbreak found even worse problems than what had been seen there before.
Plant officials have said they were never notified of past violations.
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