FDA Cracks Down On Salmonella Outbreak Under New Food Safety Law

Over 40 people — mostly children — across dozens of states have contracted salmonella after consuming peanut butter that was manufactured at a Sunland Inc. plant and sold at Trader Joe’s grocery stores. But thanks to the increased authority that the Food and Drug Administration gained under the 2011 food safety law, the agency was able to halt production at the country’s largest organic peanut butter company on Monday after confirming traces of salmonella at one of Sunland’s processing plants.

This marks the first time FDA officials have used their new regulatory muscle since President Obama signed the food safety bill into law last year. As an FDA official explained to USA Today, the agency wasn’t able to act as quickly to stem potential public health outbreaks before that legislation took effect:

The food safety law gave the FDA authority to suspend a company’s registration when food manufactured or held there has a “reasonable probability” of causing serious health problems or death. Before the food safety law was enacted early last year, the FDA would have had to go to court to suspend a company’s registration. […]

Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods, said the FDA’s ability to suspend a registration like this one is a major step forward for the agency.

“Consumers can be assured that products will not leave this facility until we determine they have implemented preventive measures that are effective to produce safe products,” Taylor said.

Throughout the course of the the FDA’s investigation into Sunland, agency officials found evidence of salmonella in 28 different locations in the processing plant. Inspectors also reported unclean equipment in the facility, improper handling of food products, and uncovered containers of peanuts that were exposed to rain and birds outside the plant. And records from previous FDA inspections in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011 note many of the same issues.

The 2011 food safety law represents the biggest overhaul to food safety legislation over the past 70 years. Once fully in effect, it will help safeguard American consumers by implementing stronger controls on imported foods, establishing minimum standards for fruit and vegetable safety, encouraging state and local health agencies to work collaboratively to meet public health goals, and — just as in this case — giving the FDA more oversight to conduct frequent inspections and order immediate recalls of tainted products. About 50 million Americans contract foodborne illnesses annually, which costs the U.S. an estimated $152 billion a year thanks to the costs of treating food poisoning.