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FDA suspends operations at Sunland peanut plant after salmonella outbreak

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(CNN) — U.S. regulators shut down a New Mexico nut-processing facility Monday after the plant was linked to an outbreak of salmonella earlier this year.

The Food and Drug Administration’s decision to suspend the registration of the Sunland, Inc., plant in Portales, New Mexico, comes after health officials traced the June outbreak to nut butter produced at the facility. In a statement announcing the move, the agency said it would reinstate the company’s food facility registration “only when FDA determines that the company has implemented procedures to produce safe products.”

The outbreak sickened at least 41 people in 20 states, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sunland recalled all products from the Portales plant in September and says it has cooperated with federal inspectors, who reported numerous health violations at the facility earlier this month.

Monday’s action marks the first time the FDA has exercised new power granted under a 2011 law modernizing food safety laws. Sunland spokeswoman Katalin Coburn told CNN the company believed it would soon be cleared to resume operations.

“The FDA has never issued a suspension, and because it’s the first time ever, we’ve got a lot of questions,” Coburn said. “So we are at this point trying to understand what exactly FDA wishes us to do.”

In a letter to the company released Monday, the FDA said Sunland has outlined “a number of corrective actions” but left out “significant details” that keep inspectors from approving the plans.

“Based upon the current condition of the facility and past management policies and actions, FDA concludes that unless and until Sunland has completed and implemented certain corrective actions, food manufactured, processed, packed, received, or held by Sunland has a reasonable probability of causing serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals,” the agency wrote.

In a report issued in mid-November, the FDA found that conditions at the Portales processing plant may have contributed to the contamination of peanut butter and almond butter products with salmonella bredeney, a strain of the bacteria.

Investigators determined that Sunland employees did not properly handle equipment, utensils and containers used to hold and store food. They say there were no sinks to wash hands in the production or packaging area. They also noted that employees handled ready-to-package peanuts with their bare hands.

According to the FDA, there were no records providing proof that production equipment was cleaned, and the same bags were used to store both raw and roasted peanuts. Raw peanuts were also found outside the facility in open trailers exposed to birds and rain.

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