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Setton Pistachios of Terra Bella Inc. unveils new food-safety program

by Joel Gebet | September 17, 2009
After a voluntary recall this past spring of roasted pistachios from its 2008 crop due to concerns about Salmonella contamination, Setton Pistachios of Terra Bella Inc. has unveiled a new food-safety program that company officials believe is one of the more advanced in the industry.

"We undertook a voluntary recall in the spring, and [our] response was an absolute commitment to the science behind food safety," Lee Cohen, the Terra Bella, CA-based firm's general manager, told The Produce News Sept. 9.

Kraft Foods found Salmonella in Setton Pistachios of Terra Bella's pistachios after routine testing in March. There were no reported illnesses.

Mr. Cohen said that Setton Pistachios has "a lot of technical resources in- house, people with a strong background in thermodynamics, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering and anemometry," which is the study of wind and air flow.

Using those resources, along with four or five different consulting firms, he said the firm came up with a food-safety program "that is grounded and rooted in science and gives us arguably the most sophisticated food-safety program in the entire nut industry."

He noted that the firm tested the air flow in its facility and has ensured that it is now a "controlled process," with the highest-risk areas having the most positive air flow to ensure there is no potential contamination from air flow. It is now conducting "small-lot, high-resolution testing" for two forms of E. coli, Shigella and Salmonella, he said.

Mr. Cohen added that "anything grown outside has a reasonable likelihood of having some form of contamination," so the firm now subjects its pistachios to a "microbial intervention" to reduce the presence of microbes coming from the natural environment.

"Tomatoes, melons, cucumbers -- all these industries do one form of this, but there is no kill step for produce," he said. "You can't bake or heat a tomato. There isn't much you can do. Pistachios are different [in that] we actually do have a kill step, which is dry roasting."

He said that the firm "undertook a series of tests, using thermodynamics, to validate [this process] to ensure that the heat path and temperature of the nuts within the dry roasting process reaches a certain temperature for a certain period of time to confirm that no pathogen can survive."

Setton Pistachios also came up with a program that Mr. Cohen said "uses three separate microbial interventions, across three different methods, across three different organisms. It represents the most sophisticated attempt to do this thus far and [the results] tell us that our food-safety design is really on firm scientific ground."

He noted that the firm's studies were conducted in partnership with a third- party food science firm that has submitted the results to a scientific journal for peer review. Setton Pistachio has also "submitted the science to the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration's] Center of Food Safety & Applied Nutrition for [its] review.

"We hope to provide the industry with the lessons we've learned from the process in what works and what doesn't, and to stay ahead of the food safety curve," he added. "What Congress will do at this point is an unknown, and if it comes out with really progressive, strong food-safety legislation, we're going to be really prepared."

The new program now enables Setton Pistachio to offer our customer almost "a menu" of food-safety options, he said.

"Some customers do their own roasting, so they don't want us to do anything, they want to buy raw, so they would opt for no microbial reduction," he said. "Some customers want to sell only the safest of product, so they'll elect for us to use more than one microbial intervention. It's really a new concept we're offering, we can provide [our customers] with a choice of what [they] want us to do. There would be some increase in cost associated, we haven't worked out those details, but the idea is to provide the option to our customers to [choose] any variety -- all, none or a combination -- of those food-safety tactics."

The firm is "very proud" of its achievements in food safety, and Mr. Cohen said that "this is the time for companies like ourselves to take the working knowledge of the science underlying food safety to the next level."

Mia Cohen, Setton Pistachios of Terra Bella's chief operating officer, told The Produce News that "with food safety being such a hot topic with customers and consumers alike, buyers of Setton's pistachios are excited about the work we have done and will be demanding that other pistachio suppliers meet these new standards."

"Food safety is important, but it has got to be balanced in that we still recognize the product as a raw agricultural commodity," Mr. Cohen said. "That is the opportunity for us, to be a value-added party so that when people buy products from Setton, [they know] we've taken a raw agricultural commodity from the natural environment and transformed it to a thoroughly wholesome, safe, quality product by having it pass through our food-safety program. We think that's going to give us a competitive advantage."