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Officials Find Salmonella at California Pistachio Plant

Jane Zhang, Wall Street Journal

April 15, 2009

Federal health officials now have proof that the California plant at the center of a nationwide pistachio recall was contaminated with salmonella, but they are still trying to figure out if the contaminated nuts caused any outbreaks of human illnesses.

David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration's associate commissioner for foods, said the agency found the Salmonella Montevideo strain in three samples taken from equipment at the plant of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., based in Terra Bella, Calif. The strain matches the bacteria that Kraft Foods Inc. had found in products supplied to the company by Setton. Kraft reported its findings to the FDA last month.

The FDA has warned consumers not to eat products containing pistachios because it is unclear how many products contain Setton's pistachios. Setton, the second-largest pistachio processor in the U.S., has recalled all raw pistachios harvested since September. Companies that bought those nuts have recalled about 470 products, such as snacks and candies, the FDA said.

Consumers can get sick from eating food contaminated with the Montevideo strain, but the government doesn't know if the contaminated nuts caused an outbreak. Dr. Acheson said about 50 patients have become sick with the Montevideo strain since September, but that number does not differ dramatically from those of previous years; Montevideo is a common strain. He said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is interviewing patients who recently became sick to see if they ate any pistachio products. The CDC said Tuesday evening said they found such a patient in Connecticut.

It is unusual for the FDA to issue a recall before proving that a contaminated product caused human illnesses. Dr. Acheson said the FDA did so in this case to protect public health. "Industry needs to understand that they have a responsibility to produce a safe product, and when they don't, we need to be moving quickly and decisively," he said.

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