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FDA, industry react to Setton Pistachio recall

by Joan Murphy | April 08, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc. in Terra Bella, CA, has expanded its recall of pistachios after the Food & Drug Administration found Salmonella in its California processing plant.

The new recall includes all roasted shelled pistachios and roasted in-shell pistachios from its 2008 crop, and raw shelled pistachios that are not subsequently roasted prior to retail sale, the California company said in an April 6 press release. But the recall also includes nearly 250 candies, ice cream and other processed food items that contain Setton pistachios.

Setton first recalled 2 million pounds of pistachios last month after Kraft Foods notified the FDA that it found Salmonella in a mixed-nut product.

The new recall was launched once the FDA and California officials found positive Salmonella samples in "critical areas" of the Setton plant, said an FDA spokesman. Food-safety officials have not confirmed whether the Salmonella samples match the four Salmonella serotypes found in Setton's nuts detected by Kraft.

This comes as the agency appears to be signaling the Obama administration's resolve to elevate food-safety matters.

"The new administration wants to move food safety to a new level," said the FDA spokesman.

Acting FDA Commissioner Josh Sharfstein conveyed this new shift to senior management and tasked David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the FDA, with coordinating the recall.

Dr. Sharfstein, who is running the agency until Margaret Hamburg is confirmed by Congress, is also speeding the internal clearance time for press releases, guidelines and other food-safety documents.

In response to the recall, FDA is drafting new guidelines on proper pistachio handling, and it just contracted with the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California-Davis to validate the use of propylene oxide gas as a treatment to kill Salmonella on tree nuts. The treatment technique has been validated for almonds but not for pistachios, said the FDA spokesman.

The good news is that some retailers are beginning to restock the shelves with pistachios thanks to a new web site ( created by the CAL-PURE co-op of California pistachio growers and the Western Pistachio Association that list the brands not containing any pistachio products from Setton Pistachio, said Richard Matoian, executive director of the association.

The FDA took a "significant and unprecedented move" of linking to it on its web site, he said, and this is helped by some retailers' decision to restock pistachios. Some retailers are using their own signage or signs supplied by processors.

Mr. Matoian said that the industry is taking a new look at its guidelines for good agricultural practices and good processing practices and is heeding an April 3 letter the FDA sent to all pistachio processors reminding them to follow current good manufacturing practices.

But the industry is still trying to determine the source of contamination in the Setton incident. The issue may be cross-contamination, "but there are questions about how it got there," he said.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, faulted the FDA for moving too slowly on cracking down on the nut industry after eight outbreaks were linked to peanuts or mixed nuts since 2001.

"The FDA should immediately require processors to institute process controls that would ensure safe product," said Ms. DeWaal. "The agency should not go company by company when it is clear that process controls are warranted for the nut industry overall."

But Mr. Matoian noted that although the pistachio recall comes on the heels of the Peanut Corp. of America incident, the two events share little history, including the fact that there are no confirmed illnesses linked to the consumption of pistachios.

In its April 6 statement, Setton said, "Even while recalling pistachio products, Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc. is making major changes in its processing facility to assure that in the future, its products will meet the highest standards of safety and quality. The changes will be based on recommendations made by the FDA and the California Department of Public Health and by food-safety experts retained by the company. Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella is pleased with the support it is receiving from its major customers. The company will emerge much stronger and the industry leader in food safety."

A company spokesman told The Produce News April 8 that Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella is "very optimistic that the changes will go smoothly and that it will be able to get back to business as quickly as possible. Their goal is to be the example on how to process pistachios and to assure food safety."

The spokesman noted that Setton International Foods Inc.'s Commack, NY, facility "has not had any issues" with Salmonella and stressed that while the firm does have "some common ownership" with Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, they are separate companies.

In fact, he said that Setton International Foods is being treated as one of the approximately three dozen customers of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella affected by the recall.