FDA says Basic Food Flavors knew plant was contaminated with salmonella

By Lyndsey Layton
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The company at the heart of a growing recall of processed foods knew that its plant was contaminated with salmonella but continued to make a flavoring and sell it to foodmakers around the country, according to inspectors at the Food and Drug Administration.

Managers at Basic Food Flavors of Las Vegas learned on Jan. 21 that samples taken a week earlier from their Nevada facility tested positive for salmonella, a potentially deadly bacterium, but they kept shipping their product to foodmakers, according to FDA inspection records.

The company makes hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or HVP, a flavor enhancer used in a wide variety of processed foods, from potato chips to sweet and sour tofu. The additive, which comes as a powder or a paste, is mixed into foods to give them a meaty or savory flavor -- similar to the use of monosodium glutamate.

Basic Food Flavors tested surfaces near food-processing equipment throughout its plant twice in January and once in February, and each time the samples showed salmonella contamination, according to FDA records. The company continued to ship products and to make more HVP without cleaning the plant or the equipment in a way that would have minimized contamination, the records said.

"The FDA is reviewing the evidence in association with the current inspection of Basic Food Flavors to determine the appropriate regulatory response," FDA spokeswoman Meghan Scott said.

It is illegal to knowingly sell food products that are contaminated with salmonella.

Officials at Basic Food Flavors did not return calls seeking comment.

No one is thought to have fallen ill from contaminated HVP, and the health risk is considered to be low because most products containing HVP are cooked during processing or carry cooking instructions for consumers, so any salmonella probably would be destroyed before the food was eaten. Ready-to-eat products, such as chips and other snack foods, would carry greater risks.

"It highlights why we need strong rules that would prevent contamination in the first place, so the FDA isn't swooping in like the cops after the fact," said Erik Olson, director of chemical and food safety programs at Pew Charitable Trusts.

Legislation that would require companies to take measures to prevent contamination was overwhelmingly passed by the House last year but has been held up in the Senate.

Federal officials were alerted to a problem with Basic Food Flavors in early February by a foodmaker who detected salmonella in one lot of HVP it purchased from the Nevada manufacturer.

Federal inspectors went to the plant within days of the complaint and conducted 14 inspections in the span of about two weeks. They documented dirty utensils and equipment -- mixers and tubing coated with brown residue -- and cracks and fractures in the floor, as well as standing water on the floor -- all conditions where bacteria can breed.

In one area where paste mixers and belt dryers were positioned, FDA inspectors noted "standing, grey/black liquid" in the drain near the area where the hydrolyzed vegetable protein was turned from paste to powder. "We sensed an odor in the vicinity of this drain," the inspectors wrote.

The company is one of only a handful that manufacture hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and its customer list is extensive. It produces about 20 million pounds of the food additive annually, according to a food industry source.

The contamination is believed to date to September 2009, meaning millions of pounds of potentially tainted HVP -- all of which the company has recalled -- was shipped in bulk to foodmakers over five months. Many of those companies then sold their products to other clients, complicating the distribution chain and making it hard for federal officials to gauge the scope of the problem.

Food companies had recalled more than 100 products as of Tuesday afternoon, ranging from dips to salad dressings to soup bouillon, and that list is expected to balloon over the next several weeks. A list of affected products can be found at http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/HVPCP/.

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