ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - An eastern New Mexico peanut butter plant that was shuttered this fall after a salmonella outbreak that sickened 42 people in 20 states has reached an agreement with federal regulators will allow it to start processing a bumper crop of peanuts the day after Christmas.
A consent decree filed Friday in federal court says Sunland Inc., the nation's largest organic peanut butter producer, can reopen 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 prompted the FDA in November to for the first time use new authority to revoke the company's operating certificate without a court hearing.
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 salmonella outbreak sickened 42 people in 20 states this fall.
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. Because of their sweet flavor, they are favored for organic and natural peanut butter products because they require 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 the facilities 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.
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.