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FDA finds Salmonella in California pistachio plant

by Joan Murphy | April 15, 2009
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Food & Drug Administration found four Salmonella samples in the California plant of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., sending federal health officials to check to see if illnesses match the Salmonella serotype Montevideo strain.

Three environmental samples and one finished roasted product tested positive for Salmonella Montevideo, one of the four strains detected on Kraft Foods' mixed nut product, according to David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the FDA. Federal officials are checking databases to see if any illnesses can be tied to the pistachios, he said.

After finding sporadic contamination for months, Kraft Foods identified pistachios as the source and notified the FDA March 24. Since then, Setton has recalled 2 million pounds of pistachios, the FDA issued a warning against eating pistachios, food companies have recalled more than 400 foods, and federal and state officials have been checking Setton's plants for Salmonella.

"It tells us microbiological controls were not what they should have been," Dr. Acheson said in a statement, referring to the findings in the California plant. It indicates that raw and roasted nuts may have been crossing the same production line without adequate cleanup, and that the company "did not have a good understanding of microbiological controls," he added.

The company received better news from New York officials. New York Agriculture Commissioner Patrick Hooker announced that all samples collected at the Setton International Foods Inc. facility in Commack, NY, tested negative for Salmonella.

The New York state Department of Agriculture & Markets' food-safety inspectors took eight food samples and nine environmental swabs April 1 from the Commack facility, and two additional retail food samples April 6. All tested negative for Salmonella, the causative agent of this nationwide recall of pistachios.

Setton International said that it was pleased with the New York test results, but it announced April 14 an expanded recall of products that contain pistachios manufactured by Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc.

While the pistachio industry grapples with the nationwide recall, the industry should take a page from the California leafy greens industry's response to the spinach crisis, said Paul Simonds, communication manager for Western Growers Association.

Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of WGA, delivered the same message to a peanut group last month, Mr. Simonds said. Commodities tied to high-profile recalls need to act swiftly and take ownership of food-safety incidents.

Still, Mr. Simonds said, it was positive news that the FDA was closing in on the cause of the incident, and he noted that as of mid-April, no illnesses had been linked to pistachios.