Did Bambi soil the nuts? Hazelnut packer declines FDA request for grower list

The Capital Press reported yesterday that an Oregon hazelnut packer has refused to give the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a list of its farmer suppliers the agency requested as part of an investigation into an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that has sickened seven in the U.S. and apparently two in Canada.

The statements by the growers and packers involved with producing hazelnuts were textbook examples of what not to do when foodborne illness is linked to a food product.

Polly Owen, manager of the Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board, said most producers would prefer not to be visited by regulators from the FDA, but the decision whether to turn over supplier lists is ultimately up to handlers, adding, "We’re not going to try to tell any industry packer what they need to do.”

Isn’t that what producer organizations are supposed to do – provide decent advice to growers so they can limit their loses during an outbreak and use the attention to build consumer trust?

The FDA requested the information after hazelnuts packed by the George Packing Co. of Newberg, Ore., were voluntarily recalled in connection with several illnesses from E. coli bacteria, said Shaun George, a principal of the company.

"I think what they’re really interested in is the farmers. They’re concerned because they’re picked up off the ground.”

The company has refused to turn over the supplier information because it’s proprietary and because hazelnuts haven’t been proven to be the cause of the E. coli outbreak, he said.

Now the hazelnuts have been proven to be the cause of the outbreak, with a standard of proof lacking in most other outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Yesterday, lab testing in Minnesota confirmed E. coli O157:H7 contamination of in-shell hazelnuts (also known as filberts) collected from the home of one of the seven people so far confirmed sick – same genetic fingerprint. The contaminated hazelnuts are part of a multi-state recall announced last Friday, March 4, by DeFranco and Sons, a California-based nut and produce distributor. DeFranco and Sons is a re-packing company in Los Angeles, Calif., said Jerry DeFranco, a principal in the firm. All of the hazelnuts were bought from George Packing Co., he said.

"It’s not like we’re chopping them up or doing anything with them here," said Defranco. "We’re just passing them along."

Owen, of the Oregon Hazelnut Marketing Board, said E. coli O157:H7 is believed to originate in ruminant animals, so growers do their best to keep orchard floors clean, adding, "It’s not economically feasible to keep deer out of every orchard."

Is that an indirect admission that deer could be the source of this latest outbreak and that hazelnuts are not immune to nature?

And though DeFranco says it just passes nuts on to others, their food safety program efforts earned a gold star on the forehead from the American Institute of Baking (AIB) based in Manhattan (Kansas). AIB also gave a big thumbs up to Peanut Corporation of America before the salmonella-in-peanut-crap outbreak that sickened 800 and killed nine beginning in 2008, and DeCoster Eggs, source of the salmonella-in-eggs outbreak of 2010 which sickened almost 2,000.