FDA takes action on Salmonella in pistachios

Salmonella has been detected in two of the 200 environmental tests of the California processing plant operated by Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc. that has already recalled 2 million pounds of potentially contaminated pistachios, the New York Times reported yesterday.

Additionally, a joint inspection of Setton’s plant by the FDA and the California Department of Public Health found that Setton employees often used the same transport bins, conveyors and packing machines for both raw and roasted pistachios. Kraft suggested last week—after issuing their own recall—that cross-contamination between raw and roasted nuts could have been the issue.

On Monday Setton expanded its recall to include all lots of roasted in-shell pistachios and roasted shelled pistachios that were produced from nuts harvested in 2008.

FDA officials told the NY Times that the agency’s interim head, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, hoped to avoid some of the problems associated with the ongoing Peanut Corp. recalls and started conference calls over the weekend with as many as 40 agency officials conversing about the appropriate next steps.

“The food industry needs to be on notice that FDA is going to be much more proactive and move things far faster,” said Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration. “We’re going to try to stop people from getting sick in the first place, as opposed to waiting until we have illness and death before we take action.”

That, of course, sounds like an excellent plan.

Swift action, though, means taking some broad precautionary steps that many in the pistachio industry have already expressed concern over. They don’t want the mistakes of one company to reflect badly on all of them. FDA, impressively, is trying to be mindful of that and is pointing interested consumers to a list industry organizations have constructed of products that are not linked to the Setton recall.

This proactive mindset, coupled with attention to industry concerns, is actually reminiscent of the FDA’s approach to the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak last summer. But no one appreciated it then.

If the FDA can continue to dialogue with members of the food industry—including whistle-blowers like Kraft and concerned pistachio growers—and clearly communicate its plans to consumers, it may have a terrific shot at salvaging its reputation as an agency committed to the health of consumers and supportive of the success of food producers with the same commitment.

It might also be able to reduce the number of people that get sick from food. That would be most appreciated.