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Pistachio Salmonella Link Uncovered

EJ Schultz, The Fresno Bee

March 31, 2009

The salmonella scare that prompted a blanket federal warning against eating pistachios may have erupted because contaminated raw nuts got mixed with roasted nuts during processing, the company at the center of the nationwide recall said Tuesday.

The pistachios in question were processed in Tulare County at Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., which is in the corporate family of Commack, N.Y.-based Setton International Foods Inc.

The company does not believe pistachios were contaminated by a human or animal source in its plant, said Lee Cohen, the production manager for Setton International Foods Inc. He said the company suspects that roasted pistachios sold to Kraft Foods Inc. may have become mixed at Setton's plant with raw nuts that could have contained traces of the bacteria.

The federal Food and Drug Administration said Setton Pistachio, the nation's second-largest pistachio processor, was voluntarily recalling more than 2 million pounds of its roasted nuts shipped since last fall. Some of those nuts were shipped to Norway and Mexico, officials said Tuesday.

"We know that the farm in California shipped its products to 36 wholesalers," said Dr. David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food safety. "But what we don't know yet is what those wholesalers did with them -- whether they were repackaged for consumers, or whether they were sold to manufacturers making ice cream or cookies or candies."

Two people called the FDA complaining of gastrointestinal illness that could be associated with the nuts, but the link hasn't been confirmed, Acheson said. Still, Setton decided to shut down the Terra Bella plant late last week, officials said.

State Democrats used the incident to tout legislation that would put strict new regulations on food processors.

Assembly Bill 1372 by Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, would require that California processors of fruits, nuts and other farm products test periodically for contaminants and report positive results to the state within 24 hours. The bill also mandates that companies adopt "detailed plans to ensure their products are safe."

"We need to be able to say to California families that the food that they eat every day is safe," he said. "We shouldn't be reacting to the next crisis. We should be preventing the next crisis."

He announced the bill alongside Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, who said she would make it a priority.

Similar attempts at mandatory regulations have failed to make it out of the Legislature in the face of lobbying by farm groups.

Last session, Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, pursued strict new rules for the lettuce and spinach industry, which has dealt with E. Coli outbreaks. The bills died in the Assembly Agriculture Committee, which includes moderate Democrats who tend to be sympathetic to grower concerns.

This year, Florez is pushing Senate Bill 550, which would require grocery stores that use programmable checkout scanners to program the equipment to alert customers when a recalled product is scanned. The bill also would give the state the power to recall products, he said.

The state's enforcement powers are limited. Feuer said the Department of Public Health only has one inspector for every 170 food-processing facilities.

Industry leaders prefer a voluntary approach -- and they say it works better.

The leafy green industry in 2007 put in place its own program that farm leaders say now includes about 95% of the industry. Produce handlers pay for the state to inspect operations. Those who don't comply with industry-developed safety rules are listed on a Web site, ""

Grocery stores and other distributors "basically just don't buy from those people," said Hank Giclas, vice president of science and technology for Western Growers, a farm trade group.

He said mandatory state regulations are too rigid and can't be updated easily to reflect new research.

"Once you put something out in regulation or statute, it's very, very difficult to change those things," he said.

Also Tuesday, state health officials added pepper sold under the Uncle Chen brand to a list of spices recalled over concerns about a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 42 people in four states, including 33 in California.

White and black pepper products from Union International Food Company's Union City facility have been linked to the outbreak, the state Department of Public Health said.

A list of retailers that sell the Uncle Chen product line is available at The products include four varieties of pepper: whole and ground Uncle Chen's White Pepper and whole and ground Uncle Chen's Black Pepper. All four products are in 5-ounce containers.

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