Pistachio Recall Signals Tough Stance on Safety
WASHINGTON — As the nation’s second-largest processor of pistachios agreed Monday to recall its entire 2008 crop despite no confirmed illnesses, the Obama administration issued a tough warning to all food makers that sloppy manufacturing practices would no longer be tolerated.
With the warning, the administration signaled that it was substantially changing the way the government oversees food safety. Food-handling practices that in the past would have resulted in mild warnings may now lead to wide-ranging and expensive recalls, even before anyone becomes ill from contaminated food.
“The food industry needs to be on notice that F.D.A. is going to be much more proactive and move things far faster,” said Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner for foods at the Food and Drug Administration. “We’re going to try to stop people from getting sick in the first place, as opposed to waiting until we have illness and death before we take action.”
Last week, the agency told consumers to avoid eating pistachios — the first time it had issued such a blanket warning in the absence of reports that anyone had been sickened. And in recent days, when tests of the processing plant of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, based in Terra Bella, Calif., found salmonella contamination and an inspection revealed troubling gaps in sanitary measures, agency officials urged the company to recall its entire 2008 crop, increasing tenfold the recall announced last week. The F.D.A. does not have the power to recall foods itself.
The recall announced on Monday includes all of Setton’s roasted in-shell and shelled pistachios harvested in 2008, as well as any raw shelled pistachios that were not roasted before retail sale.
That most likely means that hundreds of pistachio-containing food products, like trail mix and nutty chocolate bars, will be recalled in the coming weeks.
Agency officials said in interviews that Dr. Joshua Sharfstein — the administration’s choice to lead the agency while Dr. Margaret Hamburg goes through the confirmation process to become commissioner — sought to avoid the agency’s cautious, step-by-step actions in the recent peanut recall. More than a month passed between the initial recall of a few lots of peanut butter and a decision to recall years of production from the Georgia and Texas plants of the Peanut Corporation of America.
Agency officials have long been reluctant to seek broad food recalls unless contamination has been proved, and such gradually expanding recalls have been a common feature of F.D.A. food actions for decades. Last week, Dr. Sharfstein told agency officials to act boldly far earlier, officials said.
Dr. Sharfstein speeded the agency’s decision making by getting as many as 40 agency officials to talk to one another in weekend conference calls. Dr. Sharfstein “wanted to drive it hard and drive it fast,” Dr. Acheson said.
The pistachio contamination scare began March 24 when Kraft Foods told the F.D.A. that it had repeatedly found salmonella contamination in pistachios shipped to the company by Setton. Kraft either destroyed the contaminated shipments or refused to accept them.
Setton’s own tests had found salmonella contamination on at least 18 occasions since September, Dr. Acheson said. With each positive test, the company sent contaminated lots of roasted pistachios back through its roaster and tested the lots again to ensure that the organism had been killed. But the repeated problems with salmonella “raised a lot of questions of what was happening with the 2008 crop and how this had happened,” Dr. Acheson said.
A joint inspection of Setton’s plant by the F.D.A. and the California Department of Public Health found that Setton employees often used the same transport bins, conveyors and packing machines for both raw and roasted pistachios, potentially contaminating the roasted nuts.
And two of 200 environmental tests of the facility found salmonella contamination, suggesting that some corner of Setton’s plant nurtured a salmonella colony that could contaminate every nut in the plant, wrote Donald Zink, a microbiologist and senior food scientist at the F.D.A.
The company has a safety processing plan for pistachios, but its purpose is to prevent metal shavings from contaminating the product, not salmonella, an agency official said.
The many problems led the agency to conclude that Setton could not guarantee the safety of its product, said Dr. Steven M. Solomon, the assistant commissioner for compliance policy at the F.D.A, so it pressed the company to recall its entire 2008 crop.
The agency’s tougher stance was praised by consumer advocates who have long called for the F.D.A. to act before consumers become ill.
“We want the F.D.A. to stop being remedial,” said Carol L. Tucker-Foreman, a food safety expert at the Consumer Federation of America.
Ms. Tucker-Foreman said legislation that would give the agency greater powers and require industry to undertake more preventive controls was still needed. Several proposals to bolster the agency’s oversight of food safety are circulating on Capitol Hill.
In another first, the agency put on its Web site a link to an industry-created list of pistachio products that are not affected by Setton’s recall. The link is part of the agency’s increased efforts to provide needed information directly to consumers. The agency instructed consumers not to eat pistachios or products containing pistachios until they determine whether the product was recalled by Setton.
The F.D.A. also sent a letter Friday to other pistachio producers reminding them to guard against salmonella contamination and promising inspections to ensure compliance.