The information leaking from the Food and Drug Administration’s investigation of Sunland, Inc., the producer of the peanut butter that was recalled about two months ago won’t immediately bring to mind visions of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, but it might prove useful in a products liability lawsuit against the peanut peddler.
After the tainted Trader Joe’s peanut butter was pulled, followed by dozens of other brands’ peanut butter and Tahini, including those made for Target, Safeway, Whole Foods, and Earth Balance, Sunland ceased operations at the plant voluntarily. Forty-one people in twenty states were sickened.
Earlier this week, on the day Sunland was planning to reopen its New Mexico plant, the FDA instead informed the company that their registration was suspended and the plant would be closed indefinitely, reports The Associated Press.
Prior to the passage of a 2011 food safety law, the FDA would have been required to go to court to obtain an order to halt operations at the plant. Under the new law, the FDA can suspend a plant’s registration when food manufactured at the plant has a “reasonable probability” of causing serious health problems or death.
What’s causing the concern? Take a look at the FDA’s inspection report. According to the FDA, the plant has a long history of safety violations. As part of the inspection, FDA personnel found salmonella in 28 different locations in the plant, 13 nut butter samples, and in a sample of raw peanuts. They also found peanuts and other allergens in products (like butter) that did not list the allergens on the label.
They also documented unclean equipment, improper handling of the products, and uncovered trailers of peanuts that were exposed to rain and birds. Similar issues were documented in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011.
It gets worse, too. According to the FDA, Sunland has shipped products over the past three years despite finding traces of salmonella in internal tests. Those same internal tests also failed to find salmonella in other samples when they should have.
For those sickened by the peanut products, the FDA’s findings could help their lawsuit immensely. Though manufacturers are generally strictly liable for the actual damages caused by their products, punitive damage awards typically require a higher showing of reprehensible conduct. The FDA’s findings of years of subpar conduct by Sunland might be enough for such a showing.