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FDA Official Says Production Error Probably Contaminated Pistachios

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A basic error on the production lines of a California processing plant is thought to have contaminated its pistachios with salmonella, a top federal food safety official said yesterday.

Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, the nation's second-largest processor of the nut, ran raw and roasted pistachios through the same machinery on several production lines, said David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food protection at the Food and Drug Administration.

Salmonella bacteria can live on raw nuts but are usually killed during the roasting process. Good manufacturing standards call for keeping raw and roasted nuts separate so that bacteria do not spread between the two.

It is unclear why Setton Pistachio ran raw and roasted nuts through the same machinery. A company spokeswoman did not respond to queries.

The company was apparently aware that it had a salmonella problem because its own tests found the bacteria on roasted nuts, Acheson said. Managers ran the nuts through the roasting process a second time to kill the bacteria before shipping them to customers, an accepted way to "recondition" the product, he said.

The FDA learned of the test results in the past week. Setton Pistachio did not report them to any regulatory agency because it is not required to do so under state or federal law. It is unclear what additional steps, if any, the company took to address the presence of salmonella in its plant, Acheson said.

Setton recalled more than 2 million pounds of pistachios Monday. But because the company supplies its nuts to about 35 wholesalers and food manufacturers, who repackage the pistachios for retail sale or use them as ingredients in other products, it was not clear which consumer goods are affected. It could take weeks to compile a comprehensive list.

That has prompted federal officials to warn consumers to temporarily stop eating all foods containing pistachios. "Our advice is to avoid eating pistachio products; don't throw them out, hold on to them as we learn more about this," Acheson said.

Food safety advocates said the government lacks basic modern tools to quickly trace the origin and destination of foods -- information that is crucial when public health is at stake. Several food safety reform bills pending in Congress would create food-tracing systems to better track agricultural products from the farm to the table.

"It's important to get the word out as quickly as possible so that people don't eat contaminated food," said Erik Olson, director of food and chemical safety programs at Pew Charitable Trusts. "They've known about this for about a week, and a lot of people have probably eaten these pistachios. Companies can't immediately trace where their food was headed and who eats it. We still won't know for a long time which products are affected. It just highlights the system is broken."

No illnesses have been linked to the nuts from Setton. Two people have complained to the FDA that they got sick after eating pistachios, but health officials have not made any definitive connection to the nuts in question, Acheson said. Salmonella can cause diarrhea, fever and cramping. The infection can be fatal for children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

The problem with the Setton pistachios was caught through internal tests by Georgia Nut, which buys the nuts from Setton to make the Back to Nature Nantucket Blend trail mix under a contract with Kraft Foods International.

Georgia Nut was doing routine testing, said Susan Davidson, a Kraft spokeswoman. The company notified Kraft that it had identified four strains of salmonella in the pistachios. Kraft contacted the FDA on March 24 to say it was voluntarily recalling the trail mix. It later expanded the recall to all Planters products containing pistachios.

The FDA, after discussions with Georgia Nut, identified Setton as the processor and began investigating, Acheson said. The California Department of Public Health dispatched a team of investigators and scientists to review the company's records and production practices and collect environmental and product samples for laboratory analysis. Results are pending.

Setton Pistachio was inspected by the FDA in 2003 and by the state of California last year; neither inspection turned up significant problems, Acheson said.

The FDA, roundly criticized by both parties on Capitol Hill recently during a wave of food-borne illnesses -- including an ongoing salmonella outbreak tied to peanuts that has sickened 690 people, killed nine and led to the largest food recall in U.S. history -- got new leadership Monday. Joshua Sharfstein started work as the deputy administrator and is running the agency. His boss-to-be, Margaret Hamburg, is awaiting congressional confirmation.

Sharfstein immediately set an aggressive tone, Acheson said. "The priority is the potential public health risk here," Acheson said. "We're out in front, getting the product off the market."

But Caroline Smith DeWaal at the Center for Science in the Public Interest said food safety laws clearly need an overhaul. "It's not really comforting when a regulatory agency has to rely on private companies to find problems," she said.

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