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Pistachio Firm Expands Recall Over Salmonella

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The second-largest pistachio processor in the nation yesterday significantly expanded its recall of nuts after federal investigators found salmonella bacteria in "critical areas" of its California facility.

Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Calif., said it was recalling all lots of roasted in-shell pistachios, roasted shelled pistachios and raw shelled pistachios that were produced from nuts harvested in 2008.

Last week, the company recalled a small portion of that harvest -- about 2 million pounds -- on the theory that it may have been contaminated by a sanitation mistake that affected just one or two production lines.

But after the Food and Drug Administration and the California Department of Public Health took hundreds of samples from the plant and its products for laboratory analysis, Setton Pistachio announced last night that it was pulling more pistachio nuts from the market. Government investigators found salmonella in critical areas of the facility but did not provide details yesterday.

Because Setton supplies about 35 wholesalers and food manufacturers that repackage the nuts for retail sale or use them as ingredients in other products, federal officials said it could take weeks before a comprehensive list of affected products is available. The FDA has begun compiling a searchable database of recalled consumer products, which can be found at http://www.fda.gov. It already includes some well-known labels such as Frito-Lay, Planters, Kirkland and the 365 brand sold by Whole Foods Market.

Consumers should not eat pistachios or foods containing the nuts unless they can determine that the nuts are not part of the recall, FDA officials said. And wholesalers, retailers and restaurants should not sell products containing pistachios unless they know the source, federal officials said.

The recall is voluntary; the FDA does not have legal authority to mandate that a manufacturer recall its product. Setton Pistachio distributes its products nationwide and to 14 other countries.

The FDA is also investigating a sister plant, Setton International Foods, which is based in Commack, N.Y., on Long Island. That company, which makes chocolate- and yogurt-covered nuts, failed its March 9 inspection by New York state officials, who found cockroaches and rodent droppings in the facility.

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. Salmonella can cause diarrhea, fever and cramping. The infection can be fatal to children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

The FDA learned about problems at Setton Pistachio on March 23 when it was notified by Kraft Foods that its internal testing found four strains of salmonella in a trail mix made with Setton's pistachios. Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the food giant said that it had actually detected salmonella in its trail mix as early as December 2007, but that it took 15 months to link it to the pistachios.

Kraft spokeswoman Susan Davidson said Georgia Nut, which makes the trail mix under a contract with Kraft, found salmonella in samples on four occasions between December 2007 and last month. In each case, Kraft destroyed the suspect product and Georgia Nut tested its equipment and raw ingredients to try to identify the source of the contamination, Davidson said.

Kraft did not notify the FDA about the earlier test results because none of the affected products entered the food supply, she said.

"We believed there was no public health risk," she said, adding that Georgia Nut conducted hundreds of tests of its equipment, facility and raw ingredients. Only in March did officials at Georgia Nut and Kraft realize that pistachios were the single common ingredient among the batches of trail mix that had tested positive for salmonella, she said.

Under state and federal law, neither Kraft nor Georgia Nut are required to notify regulators about internal tests that show a food contaminated with bacteria.

Meanwhile, the pistachio industry took the unusual step yesterday of launching a Web site (http://www.pistachiorecall.org) that lists products not affected by the recall. The industry is hoping to reassure consumers and prevent the sharp drop in sales that devastated the peanut industry earlier this year after a nationwide outbreak of salmonella illness was traced to a Georgia peanut firm, said Richard Matoian of the Western Pistachio Association, which represents more than 400 pistachio growers in California, Arizona and New Mexico.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based health advocacy group, said the industry Web site is a great idea. "In these really large ingredient recalls, consumers really need to know which products are not affected," she said.

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