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.

Salmonella in pistachios: He Said, She Said

It’s on, bitches.

After a production manager for Setton Pistachio’s sister company in New York said yesterday Kraft Foods did not tell Setton until recently that they had detected salmonella-tainted pistachios last year, Kraft offered a timeline of Salmonella-positive events. Kraft spokeswoman Susan Davison said,

Workers at one of Kraft’s manufacturers in Illinois turned up a contaminated batch of fruits and nuts in December 2007. Then, in September of last year, another positive sample appeared.

Only after thousands of tests could the company pinpoint the source for the second positive test as California-based Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc. … Kraft finally determined pistachios caused last year’s problem in March, when their manufacturer in Illinois detected salmonella for the third time – this time in the nuts, the only common ingredient between the second and third batch of trail mix. Kraft has not traced the source for the first positive salmonella test in 2007.

"If we did detect salmonella, of course we would never ship our products. We conducted extensive testing of all our food, and we were just unable to zero in until March that pistachios were the root cause."

Setton Pistachio then retracted the production manager’s statement.

On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration sent out a letter to the pistachio industry reminding nut processors to follow good manufacturing practices to protect consumers, something food safety experts called welcome guidance.

Oh, and before it was an Ashley Tisdale song, He Said She Said was a bad 1991 romantic comedy about competing newspaper advice columnists. They’d be blogging for free today.