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FDA suspends peanut butter plant linked to salmonella outbreak

(Reuters) - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration suspended operations on Monday at a New Mexico food producer linked to salmonella-tainted peanut butter that has sickened at least 41 people this year, the agency said in a statement.

The FDA said it had suspended Sunland Inc's food facility registration "in the interest of public health," following the national outbreak and a history of food safety violations reaching back over three years.

"The fact that peanut butter made by the company has been linked to an outbreak ... that has sickened 41 people in 20 states, coupled with Sunland's history of violations led FDA ... to suspend the company's registration," the FDA statement said, referring to an outbreak that began in June.

Registration with the administration is required for any facility that makes, processes, packs or holds food for consumption in the United States. If a facility's registration is suspended, it is banned from distributing food for sale.

The FDA said a review of Sunland Inc's product testing records showed that 11 product lots of nut butter tested positive for salmonella between June 2009 and September 2012.

Between March 2010 and September 2012, at least a portion of eight product lots of nut butter that the firm's own testing program identified as containing salmonella was distributed by the company to consumers, the organization said.

Additionally, the FDA found the presence of salmonella during its inspection of the plant in September and October, both in samples taken in food production areas and in food products themselves.

Attempts to reach Sunland on Monday were unsuccessful, but in a November 15 statement the company said "at no time in its twenty four year history has Sunland, Inc. released for distribution any products that it knew to be potentially contaminated with harmful microorganisms."

The company said it "has followed internal testing protocols that it believed resulted in the isolation and destruction of any product that did not pass the test designed to detect the presence of any contaminants."

Salmonella typically causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal pain. It can be fatal for old people, young children and people with weakened immune systems. The FDA said it would reinstate the firm's registration only when it determines that the company has implemented procedures to produce safe products.

(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bob Burgdorfer)

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