ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The Department of Justice is seeking apermanent injunction against the nation's largest organic peanut butterplant, an eastern New Mexico facility that has been linked to asalmonella outbreak that has sickened 42 people in 20 states this fall.
Therequest filed Thursday in federal court in Albuquerque seeks toprohibit Sunland Inc. in Portales from receiving, processing,manufacturing or selling any nut products until the Food and DrugAdministration is satisfied its operations are safe.
It wasn'timmediately clear what prompted federal prosecutors to get involved inthe case against Sunland, whose registration to operate was revoked bythe FDA last month because of repeated safety violations.
Thatorder came as the company had planned to reopen some operations aftervoluntarily recalling hundreds of products and closing its processingand peanut butter plants in late September and early October.
Lastweek, a Sunland spokeswoman said the company was hoping to getpermission from the FDA to reopen its peanut processing plant so itcould begin work on the millions of pounds of Valencia peanuts piled upin barns after a bumper harvest this fall.
Plant officials didn't immediately return phone calls Friday seeking comment.
TheFDA's revocation of the company's operation certification marked thefirst time the FDA used the authority granted under a 2011 food safetylaw that allows the agency to halt food operations without a courthearing.
The action was denounced as unfair and unnecessarilyheavy-handed by many in the conservative farm town of Portales, whereSunland is the largest private employer. At the end of November, theplant had laid off about 30% of its 150 workers.
The FDA saidinspectors found samples of salmonella in 28 different locations in theplant, in 13 nut butter samples and in one sample of raw peanuts.Inspectors found improper handling of the products, unclean equipmentand uncovered trailers of peanuts outside the facility that were exposedto rain and birds. Inspectors also said employees lacked access tohand-washing sinks, and dirty hands had direct contact withready-to-package peanuts.
The FDA said it inspected the plant atleast four times over the past five years, each time finding violations.Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said theagency's inspections after the outbreak found even worse problems thanwhat had been seen there before.
Plant officials have said they were never notified of past violations.
Thesalmonella outbreak was traced to Trader Joe's Valencia peanut butterproduced at the plant. According to the Centers for Disease Control andPrevention, 42 people were sickened, mostly children. Sunland is thenation's largest organic peanut butter plant. It produces organic,natural and traditional products for a number of national grocery andretail chains using mostly Valencia peanuts.
Valencias are avariety of peanuts that come almost exclusively from eastern New Mexico.Because of their sweet flavor, they are favored for organic and naturalpeanut butter products because they require few additives.