FDA Writing New Chapters in Food Safety History

By: Michael R. Taylor, J.D.

Yesterday, Sunland Inc. entered into a court ordered agreement imposing requirements that must be complied with if the company is to operate. This consent decree follows FDA’s suspension of Sunland’s food facility registration in November as a result of evidence linking Sunland to an outbreak of Salmonella Bredeney that sickened 42 people in 20 states, as well as the company’s history of violations. The company was barred from distributing food in intrastate or interstate commerce while its registration was suspended. 

Mike Taylor, J.D.Yesterday’s consent decree may be seen by some as a final step in the process, but at FDA we see it as a beginning. Certainly, it is a new beginning for the company, which must correct the problems identified during recent FDA inspections before being allowed to market its nut butter products. More broadly, though, it is the beginning of a new chapter in FDA history.

With the suspension of Sunland’s food facility registration, for the first time FDA was, in effect, able to independently prevent a company from distributing food that could have caused harm to consumers. This was our first use of this new authority granted by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), and it will be an important tool for FDA to use in the future to ensure the accountability of companies for the safety of the food they produce. 

Under the decree, Sunland must hire an independent sanitation expert to develop a program to ensure products are produced in a sanitary way and according to good manufacturing practices. The company must also conduct environmental testing to ensure that disease-causing bacteria aren’t present in its facility or in its final food products. FDA will evaluate the programs Sunland sets up, and will not allow the company to operate its peanut butter plant until we determine that its products can be safely produced. 

Paving the way for this new beginning of accountability for food safety was the work of the many employees from FDA and CDC, and state and local governments, who responded to and investigated this outbreak. The work done on this investigation was outstanding. Within days of being notified of the outbreak, our Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) network was making headway on the investigation. A link was made between the illnesses and the product and its manufacturer, and our investigators in the field ramped up their on-going investigation of Sunland’s facility to find the source of the outbreak.  

I also think that FDA’s first use of the suspension authority provided by FSMA demonstrates the promise that FSMA itself holds in all its aspects. The suspension of Sunland’s registration demonstrates FDA’s new enforcement tools, but we are also working on other new preventative tools as well. 

As I said earlier, we are writing new chapters in the history not just of FDA, but of food safety. Our response to the recent Salmonella Bredeney outbreak related to peanut butter was a fine example of our newest innovations, like CORE, and using our authority to suspend a registration. But there is still more to come.

Michael R. Taylor, J.D., is Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine