Nuts. Americans love them. They are a heart-healthy staple of recipes, diet plans, kids' lunches and snack foods.
They have also been at the center of major salmonella outbreaks in recent years. The government and the food industry are working overtime to beef up guidelines on what companies need to do to keep consumers safe.
The salmonella outbreak in peanut products has sickened 691 and may have contributed to the deaths of nine in 46 states. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the last illness was reported on Feb. 24, products are still being sporadically recalled.
A salmonella outbreak in 2004 linked to raw almonds made dozens sick and resulted in the recall of 13 million pounds of almonds. Because of that, the Department of Agriculture has mandated that all almonds be pasteurized to kill salmonella.
And this week, 2 million pounds of pistachios were recalled because of concerns about contamination. Pistachios were a surprise because they historically have not been considered vulnerable to bacterial contamination, says Richard Matoian of the Western Pistachio Association in Fresno.
The repeated outbreaks and recalls may bring about a new day in the oversight of nut production. For the peanut industry, "This is a wake-up call," says Emory Murphy, the Georgia Peanut Commission's assistant executive director.
President Obama, who has publicly expressed concern about the safety of the peanut butter his 7-year-old daughter, Sasha, eats, has made it clear that he sees food safety as a major concern. "No parent should have to worry that their child is going to get sick from their lunch," he said in the March 14 address in which he announced the creation of the Food Safety Working Group, an interagency effort to help overhaul the oversight system.
"There's enormous public pressure placed on food processors and manufacturers to ensure farm-to-fork integrity," says Arvin Maskin, a product-liability lawyer at Weil Gotshal & Manges in New York.
Even consumer advocates who say food producers have avoided making safety a priority are seeing a change. "I think that resistance is crumbling in the wake of repeated recalls, which have cost them so much money and so much in the way of consumer confidence," says Sarah Klein, a staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in Washington, D.C.
'Guidance' on salmonella
After the outbreak in peanut products, the Food and Drug Administration released on March 9 its first "guidance" on how to deal with the risk of salmonella contamination in foods that include peanuts. The agency has put food producers on notice that it expects an elimination of virtually all salmonella bacteria in peanut products.
The contamination was traced to the Peanut Corp. of America, which supplied wholesale peanut butter to institutions such as schools and nursing homes, and peanut paste to retail food manufacturers for use as an ingredient in ice cream, cookies, candy and other foods. FDA inspectors reported that PCA's plant in Blakely, Ga., was dirty and infested by rodents.
Guidance designed to prevent such conditions is not legally binding, but it proclaims the FDA's views on the actions necessary to bring a troubled industry in line with food-safety laws. Food producers can choose to meet their legal obligations in ways not recommended by the guidance, but they run the risk of running afoul of FDA inspectors on the lookout for processors "not paying attention to what FDA wants to see in a well-run plant," says Michael Kashtock, a food-safety scientist at FDA's Division of Plant and Dairy Food Safety in College Park, Md.
The agency wants a guaranteed "kill step" to destroy salmonella in dry roasted peanuts, the type most used in cookies, candy and peanut crackers. That step generally requires heating to an excess of 300 degrees for more than 15 minutes, Kashtock says.
More important, the FDA now expects producers to "validate" all such processes, proving that the kill step works. On any given roasting machine, multiple tests will have to be done on products going in and coming out of ovens and roasters.
It will mean using carefully calibrated temperature gauges to check for cold spots in the ovens. It can even mean doing infrared imaging of cookies and other baked goods to make sure they reach the proper interior temperature to kill salmonella, says Rick Falkenberg, a microbiologist at Food Safety and Process Technology, a Turlock, Calif.-based company that is a process authority for manufacturers.
"These studies are difficult to do, and they're expensive," says Paul Gerhardt, a microbiologist at the National Food Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.
Very expensive. A large, complicated piece of roasting equipment could cost $20,000, $30,000 or even $50,000 to validate, Gerhardt says.
It's a good investment, says Bill Marler, a prominent Seattle-based food-safety lawyer who has already filed eight lawsuits against PCA. "You always worry that you'll spend $2,000 more a month to do testing, but if that $2,000 can save me from going bankrupt or losing hundreds of millions of dollars, it's a cheap investment."
He has a point. The Georgia Peanut Commission says the outbreak may cost peanut producers $1 billion in lost production and sales. Kellogg, which makes Keebler and Austin peanut butter crackers, both of which were recalled, says it has lost $70 million because of the outbreak.
The FDA is not the only one looking for changes.
On Feb. 4, the Grocery Manufacturers Association released guidelines on how companies can control salmonella in low-moisture foods, with peanuts being one of the main foods targeted.
Later that month, the American Peanut Council, an industry group, issued an outline of good manufacturing practices. Recommendations include continuous microbiological testing of products and stringent pest control.
Will these measures be enough?
When a guidance is related to safety, "Companies usually follow it or something more stringent," says Scott Openshaw of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
CSPI's Klein doesn't buy it. "This is crisis management in action," she says. "These guidances are voluntary. What they're banking on is that everybody in the industry is going to do the right thing, and unfortunately, if the Peanut Corp. of America has taught us nothing else, it's that not everyone is going to do the right thing."
An industry on notice
This outbreak has put the entire food industry on notice that it must ensure not only the safety of the food it produces, but the ingredients it buys. PCA handled only an estimated 2.5% of all U.S. peanuts, says Patrick Archer of the peanut council. But because of the enormous popularity of peanut products, "Even a small company like that supplied (ingredients to) a lot of companies." In fact, the FDA reports that almost 4,000 peanut products have been recalled.
That's something that the FDA action hammers home.
"The guidance is really directed to the people who make the ice cream, the cookies, the candy bars," Kashtock says. Either companies have to mitigate the risk by testing the ingredients they buy, or ensure that their supplier did.
Requiring everyone along the production process to make sure the ingredients they're using are safe seems to work. It's how the pistachio contamination was discovered.
A small Skokie, Ill., firm called the Georgia Nut Co. bought pistachios from Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Calif., and then, as part of its routine food-safety efforts, had them tested for salmonella.
"We have a pretty rigorous product-testing regime," spokesman Joshua Robbins says. The test came back positive for salmonella, and the company issued a recall on March 25 for the nuts it had sent to a small number of Chicago-area stores.
It also informed Kraft Foods, for which it produced and packaged Nantucket Blend Trail Mix under the Back to Nature Foods label. Kraft issued a recall for the trail mix, which contains pistachios, the same day.
Kraft has also recalled all Planters products containing pistachios, and Frito-Lay has recalled its in-shell pistachios. The Kroger supermarket chain of Cincinnati has recalled its Private Selection Shelled Pistachios.
Setton Pistachio sold its pistachios in 1,000- and 2,000-pound containers to about 30 wholesalers. FDA officials say they expect the pistachio recall to become larger as makers of pistachio-containing products such as ice cream, candy and trail mix realize that their foods contain Setton pistachios.
A low-risk product
Pistachios have three distinct processing steps that have historically made them a very low-risk product when it came to bacterial contamination, says Matoian of the Western Pistachio Association.
First, pistachios are harvested by large machines that shake the tree, dropping the nuts into hoppers. Nuts that fall on the ground where they might be contaminated are not harvested, he says.
Then they're brought to a processing facility where they're husked and washed, generally in a very diluted chlorine bath to both clean them and kill contaminants. From there, they go through an initial drying process at 160 degrees to 200 degrees for four to six hours, Matoian says.
After that, they're cooled and stored until they're roasted at 250 degrees to 350 degrees for 15 minutes to a few hours, depending on the processor.
It's unlikely salmonella could survive that process, he says.
While it's not yet known how Setton's nuts were tainted, company officials say they believe the processed nuts may have come in contact with raw pistachios that carried the bacteria.
Several industry experts say Setton Pistachio — the second-largest pistachio processor in the nation — is regarded as an excellent production facility.
"They're a very well-run plant," says Louise Ferguson, a pistachio researcher at the University of California-Davis. "We even toured them recently for a short course" on pistachio production.
Cleaning up plants isn't rocket science, attorney Marler says.
"In many respects, it's just common sense," he says. "You're taking a deep breath and thinking about where all the possible safety flaws in your system are and then how to deal with them."
Companies are going to have to up their game and cultivate "a culture of risk avoidance," Maskin says. They can't rely on the government or third-party auditors to ensure their products are safe. "In the food-safety arena, you have to consider the magnitude of the potential harm."