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Feds Move Quickly to Combat Latest Salmonella Scare

Chastened by a costly and deadly salmonella outbreak that spawned the country's largest ever food recall, government and industry players moved quickly to try to combat the latest scare involving pistachios.

Hours before federal regulators publicly announced a massive recall of the nuts, public health agencies nationwide were alerted to be on the lookout for suspicious stomach illnesses in a bid to get a jump on a potential outbreak.

The rarely used tactic - announcing a recall before illnesses strike - was meant to put the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "ahead of the curve," said the agency's commissioner for foods, Dr. David Acheson.

Outside of two reports of gastrointestinal illness, there has been no wave of sickenings linked to pistachios reported. That contrasts markedly with the peanut salmonella contamination, linked to nine deaths and poisonings in almost 700 other people.

Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Calif., began voluntarily pulling its products from distribution centers and retail shelves Monday night. The company is an affiliate of Setton International Foods Inc., in Commack.

The problem with its pistachios was caught during internal tests performed by Georgia Nut Co., which buys nuts from Setton to make Back to Nature Nantucket Blend trail mix under contract with Kraft Foods International. Georgia Nut was doing routine testing, Kraft spokeswoman Adrienne Dimopoulos said. The company notified Kraft it had identified four different strains of salmonella in the nuts. Kraft then called the FDA on March 24 to say it was voluntarily recalling the trail mix.

The FDA, after discussions with Georgia Nut, identified Setton as the processor and began investigating, Acheson said. California health officials sent investigators to review records, production practices and collect samples for laboratory analysis. Results are not yet known.

Bill Marler, an attorney with 15 years experience litigating food-borne illnesses, said "it was fortuitous that Kraft was conducting testing. They deserve credit for blowing the whistle."

A more aggressive, proactive response to contamination helps change the notion that the embattled FDA merely reacts to a contamination after consumers start falling ill, experts say.

"Actually it's not that new," Dr. Peter Pitts, a former associate commissioner of the FDA said of the front-footed approach. "It is an infrequently used approach. And it is infrequently used because of the FDA's historic dearth of funding," added Pitts, now president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest in Manhattan.

Public health experts also applauded the aggressive stance. "I am pleasantly surprised seeing them take such a comprehensive, proactive approach. To do this kind of a warning is challenging," Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, Suffolk County Health Commissioner, said of the FDA.

Chaudry's public health staff checked their owned data, phoned local hospitals and found no new reports of salmonella poisoning. The Wadsworth Center Laboratory in Albany also reported no new salmonella-related cases statewide.

Acheson credited Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, FDA's incoming deputy commissioner, with the tougher stance on contamination. Sharfstein hopes to reinvigorate the agency's watchdog role.

A Setton spokesman Tuesday pointed to possible cross-contamination between roasted and raw pistachios as the cause of the problem.

Pitts stressed the pistachio recall was very different from the peanut contamination, an outbreak he said was caused "by criminals and involved criminal activity. The pistachio recall involves a company that wants to do the right thing. These are completely different scenarios," he said.

Salmonella contamination is not growing in scope, experts say. The bacteria are part of the natural world. "It's a reflection of an industrialized food supply," said Dr. Martin Blaser, of the department of medicine at NYU Medical Center and a former salmonella surveillance officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We have twentieth century and twenty-first century modes of distribution . . . but nineteenth century modes of food safety."

Long Island merchants and customers showed little anxiety Tuesday about the voluntary pistachio recall, with plenty of roasted pistachios available at area stores.

Danny Alario, manager of a Commack Waldbaum's, said by noontime he had not received word from the company headquarters about the voluntary recall.

But there was at least one resident who is taking the voluntary recall to heart on Tuesday.

"My husband eats pistachios every single day," said Joan Simon, 62, retired and from Dix Hills, as she loaded her car with shopping bags outside the Commack Waldbaum's. "I'm going to tell him to stay away from them."

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