The recall and plant shuttering came as the region was finishing a bumper harvest of the prized Valencia peanuts grown almost exclusively in the region. Because of their sweet flavor, they are favored for organic and natural peanut butter products because they require few additives.
Sunland produces products for a number of national grocery and retail chains, and New Mexico Peanut Growers Association President Wayne Baker says the industry generates about $60 million in the region each year.
The FDA took the unusual step in November of revoking the facilities registration just as the plant was hoping to reopen its processing plant to begin work on the millions of pounds of Valencia peanuts piled up in barns after this year's harvest.
The action was denounced as unfair and unnecessarily heavy-handed by many in the conservative farm town of Portales, where Sunland is the largest private employer. At the end of November, the plant had laid off about 30 percent of its 150 workers.
The FDA said inspectors found samples of salmonella in 28 different locations in the plant, in 13 nut butter samples and in one sample of raw peanuts. Inspectors found improper handling of the products, unclean equipment and uncovered trailers of peanuts outside the facility that were exposed to rain and birds. Inspectors also said employees lacked access to hand-washing sinks, and dirty hands had direct contact with ready-to-package peanuts.
The FDA said it inspected the plant at least four times over the past five years, each time finding violations. Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said the agency's inspections after the outbreak found even worse problems than what had been seen there before.
Plant officials have said they were never notified of past violations.