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Updates On Pistachios and Salmonella

9 April 2009 599 views No Comment

After Food and Drug Administration inspectors found salmonella bacteria in “critical areas” of a Setton Pistachio plant in California, the company expanded its recall to include the majority of its 2008 crop, an estimated 60 million pounds of product. Its initial recall affected only 2 million pounds of nuts. And even though roasting should kill salmonella bacteria, the recall includes pistachios roasted by Setton Pistachio, as there is evidence that the company mixed raw nuts with roasted ones, against good manufacturing practices.

The hero of the ordeal is the Georgia Nut Co. of Skokie, Ill. Because of the company’s routine food-testing procedures, the salmonella was detected before anybody got sick. Georgia Nut informed its client, Kraft Foods, and Kraft in turn informed Setton Pistachio and the FDA.

But this wasn’t the first time the company discovered salmonella. Trail mix containing pistachios and other ingredients tested positive in December 2007 and again in September 2008. Kraft destroyed the products but did not report the incident. A Kraft spokeswoman told AP it was because the company had been unable to pinpoint pistachios as the culprit. But after the trail mix tested positive again in February and in March, Georgia Nut tested Setton pistachios in its inventory, thus solving the mystery.

In the wake of the recall, California lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require all food companies in the state to test products on a regular basis. And the FDA has issued a guidance to industry regarding pistachios and announced that it will get tougher on food safety in the future.

But the agency still lacks the power to force companies to recall contaminated products.

“They basically have to jawbone them into it,” said Jean Halloran, director of food safety for Consumers Union. “Most of the time, companies capitulate, but there is always a bit of negotiation involved and some companies dig their heels.”

Furthermore, Georgia Nut and Kraft were not legally obligated to report their salmonella findings, either to Setton Pistachio or to the FDA.

Kroger, Costco, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Frito-Lay are all among the companies hit by the recall. While the FDA announces a growing list of recalled products, the pistachio industry is trying to emphasize safe pistachio products. Pistachio trade groups have combined efforts to launch a website letting consumers know which products are not in any way associated with Setton Pistachio’s recall, though the FDA has not approved or verified the list.

There are no confirmed illnesses associated with pistachios, but most articles mention two cases of sick people that may or may not be connected to this round of salmonella contamination. I’m a bit confused by this, as reports were saying the same thing a week ago, and I would expect that test results would have come through by now.

The FDA is also investigating a sister plant in New York, run by Setton International Foods. The plant failed a surprise health inspection last month when inspectors found cockroaches and rodent droppings. But the production manager told AP that the problems have been fixed and there is no connection between the New York plant and the salmonella contamination; the plant is holding its pistachio products only because they came from the California plant where the contamination occurred.

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