It was bad news to PB&J lovers everywhere this September when peanut butter was being plucked from store shelves in a race to slow a salmonella outbreak. More than 40 people were sickened, and because the contaminated jars were sold at Trader Joe’s, which has earned a name for good practices, it felt personal to consumers. Now the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has shut down the New Mexico packing plant responsible for the outbreak.
After a month-long investigation by the FDA at the Sunland, Inc. factory in New Mexico, it appears there were even more reasons to worry than consumers knew about. Inspectors unearthed not only salmonella in 28 samples from different locations in the plant, but a number of other unsavory discoveries, including evidence the company handled products improperly, used unclean equipment, and left trailers of peanuts outside the facility where they were exposed to rain and birds, reports the Associated Press.
The suspension will keep Sunland, Inc. from making or selling any peanut butter until its registration has been renewed (though the plant already ceased making peanut butter when the recall was issued, so the effect of its shuttering is limited).
Registration renewal requires Sunland to submit a detailed plan of action for fixing its problems. Once that plan is implemented, the company will need to undergo another FDA inspection, the cost of which will have to come out of its own pockets.
For food safety advocates, the closure is a beacon of hope. "It should be a good sign for consumers that the FDA is willing to use their new authority," Sarah Klein, senior food safety attorney at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), tells TakePart.
The "new authority" she's referring to is the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which representatives from the FDA said enabled them to resolve the peanut butter issue. President Obama signed the act at the start of 2012, effectively shifting the federal food safety approach from one of reaction to one of prevention.
The closure of the facility is the first promising sign since the saga began back in 2007 (though the move has upset peanut farmers who now stand by while a million pounds of peanuts remain locked up awaiting the next move). According to FDA officials, the factory was found guilty of similar offenses in years prior, including during 2009, 2010 and 2011 inspections. Inspectors’ reports showed that employees put their bare fingers into empty jars before filling them, left bags of ingredients open, and used unclean equipment, reports the AP. But the FDA was bogged down in regulatory procedures at the time, prompting CSPI to call the peanut butter recall a sad reminder of missed deadlines to implement the FSMA. CSPI pointed out that deadlines on three food safety rules from the FSMA that could have helped the situation had been missed between January 4 and July 4.
So can we trust the FDA to protect us now?
"I think the answer is yes," Klein says. "I think this is a sign that FDA is taking the new authority that was given to the agency under the Food Safety Modernization Act and using it in a way that it was intended. It has long been the hope of the consumer advocacy community that if we could get the agency more authority and more enforcement power, the agency would use it to protect consumers."
Klein admits that the regulatory process is slow, making for creeping change for food safety. It's hard, she explains, to know what makes regulation slow in any given situation. "Sometimes, regulations take a long time to come out because private industry is so vehemently opposed to them that to release them would create a whole range of other problems on whole other issues," she says. "Sometimes, an administration is gun shy to release them.”
But though it's easy to blame the FDA for not acting fast enough, Klein says it's important that consumers don't lose sight of where outbreaks begin, making the analogy that blaming the FDA for unsafe food is like blaming police for crime. "The fault for consumers getting sick doesn’t lie with the regulatory agency. That fault lies with the food producer," she says. "If there is a real villain here—as opposed to an accident—that villain is not the regulator. The buck for food safety has to start with the food producer. The food producer bears the ultimate responsibility for making food safely."
Hear that, food producers? Your days of passing the buck are numbered.
Have you taken any extra precautions to ensure your food's safety since the outbreak? Let us know in the Comments.