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Salmonella testing leads to large pistachio recall

by Joan Murphy | March 30, 2009
WASHINGTON -- With the food industry still reeling from a massive peanut recall, a California firm is recalling some 1 million pounds of pistachios after food processors detected Salmonella during routine testing. "We are trying to be proactive," said David Acheson, the Food & Drug Administration's associate commissioner for foods, who held an evening press call March 30 to announce the recall. The new FDA acting commissioner, Joshua Sharfstein, who took over running the agency March 30, "wants to clearly get out in front of this," said Dr. Acheson.

No illnesses have been associated with the recall at this time, he said, and the latest discovery is not related to the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak that was linked to a Georgia peanut plant. Even though there are no illnesses, the FDA is advising consumers to avoid eating pistachios and to hold onto products until more information becomes available.

Federal and California health officials are focusing the probe on Terra Bella, CA-based Setton Pistachio -- the second largest pistachio processor in the United States -- which has voluntarily recalled specific lots of bulk roasted shelled pistachios packed in 2,000-pound, 1,700-pound, 1,800-pound and 1,000-pound tote bags shipped on or after Sept. 1, 2008.

The firm, which oversees more than 5,000 pistachio orchards and processes more than 60 million pounds each year, said that this is the first recall in its 13-year history of processing pistachios. Dr. Acheson said that the number of recalls is likely to grow since the pistachios were sold to at least 35 wholesalers which then distributed them as ingredients for a variety of foods, such as ice cream and cake mixes.

FDA learned about the problem March 24, when it was informed by Kraft Foods that its "Back To Nature Trail Mix," which is manufactured by Georgia Nut Co., was contaminated with Salmonella. On March 25, Georgia Nut Co. recalled certain wholesale and retail products after its "rigorous sampling and testing program" detected Salmonella. On the same day, Back to Nature Food Co. recalled its trail mix. Food companies have detected four different Salmonella serotypes.

The California Department of Public Health is coordinating with FDA in investigating Setton Pistachio by reviewing records and collecting samples for laboratory testing.

The cause of the problem may be the mixing of raw and processed products, environmental contamination or inadequate roasting temperatures, according to Dr. Acheson. In the meantime, health officials said it would be days until test results from the Terra Bella facility are available.