By Jeri Clausing
The Department of Justice is seeking a permanent injunction against the nation's largest organic peanut butter plant, an eastern New Mexico facility that has been linked to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 42 people in 20 states this fall.
The request filed Thursday in federal court in Albuquerque seeks to prohibit Sunland Inc. in Portales from receiving, processing, manufacturing or selling any nut products until the Food and Drug Administration is satisfied its operations are safe.
It wasn't immediately clear what prompted federal prosecutors to get involved in the case against Sunland, whose registration to operate was revoked by the FDA last month because of repeated safety violations.
That order came as the company had planned to reopen some its operations after voluntarily recalling hundreds of products and closing its processing and peanut butter plants in late September and early October.
Last week, a Sunland spokeswoman said the company was hoping to get permission from the FDA to reopen its peanut processing plant so it could begin work on the millions of pounds of Valencia peanuts piled up in barns after a bumper harvest this fall.
Plant officials didn't immediately return phone calls Friday seeking comment.
The FDA's revocation of the company's operation certification marked the first time the FDA used the authority granted under a 2011 food safety law that allows the agency to halt food operations without a court hearing.
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.
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.
The salmonella outbreak was traced to Trader Joe's Valencia peanut butter produced at the plant. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42 people were sickened, mostly children. Sunland is the nation's largest organic peanut butter plant. It produces organic, natural and traditional products for a number of national grocery and retail chains using mostly Valencia peanuts.
Valencias are a variety of peanuts that come almost exclusively from eastern New Mexico. Because of their sweet flavor, they are favored for organic and natural peanut butter products because they require few additives.