Salmonella Fears Hit Pistachios


Hungry? There are slim pickings today when it comes to eating nuts. On top of an enormous peanut recall, health officials now warn consumers to stay away from pistachios, too, due to separate concerns about food safety.

Two million pounds of pistachios that have been distributed nationwide were recalled Monday, the Food and Drug Administration announced Monday night.

Concerns about bacteria-tainted pistachios surfaced when Kraft Foods tested them as part of routine analysis and "found a variety of different types of salmonella."

The FDA has announced the recall in advance of any confirmed illnesses. There have been some consumer complaints, but that doesn't mean definitively that the pistachios caused the illnesses.

"The good news is that the government is acting in advance of any illnesses, this means that in fact they are being more proactive to protect the public," Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told ABC News today.

The bad pistachios are believed to be coming from the second largest pistachio producer in the country, Setton International Foods, Inc. in Terra Bella, Calif. The FDA and the California Department of Health have been inspecting and investigating the facility for the past few days.

The company packs the nuts in large volume -- about 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of pistachios in each container -- and ships them to some three dozen suppliers and wholesalers that then repack or resell them to many other manufacturers under different brand names.

One of those companies was Kroger, which announced it has recalled pistachios in 31 states. Kroger operates stores under different names, including Kroger, Ralphs and Dillons.

For that reason, it could take weeks, or even longer, to determine where all the pistachios ended up. They are used as ingredients in baked goods, and in trail mix and ice cream. So for now, the FDA has urged consumers to forgo this kind of nut entirely.

That is of obvious concern to California's Western Pistachio Association.

"We just hope the FDA comes out very quickly with a more refined statement about which pistachios to avoid because the vast majority of the pistachios are not tainted," the association's executive director Richard Matoian told ABC station KFSN.

"This is really the first day of what may be a very large recall when you consider all the products that could potentially contain these contaminated pistachios," DeWaal said.

Pistachio Recall Unrelated to Peanut Recall

The pistachio announcement came on the same day that the new acting commissioner of the FDA started his job. In taking the reins of the agency, Josh Sharfstein meets food safety challenges coming at him from several different directions.

For months, consumers have been warned to stay away from certain types of peanuts and shop for alternatives as salmonella spreads across the country. As a result of those problems, peanut sales have plummeted, and lawmakers have stepped in to examine why companies didn't catch the problem before it became an outbreak. The peanut company at the heart of the recall has since filed for bankruptcy.

Peanut recalls continue to pour in eight months after illnesses first surfaced.

In recent years, food safety concerns have also steered shoppers away from buying tomatoes, salsa and spinach. President Obama has vowed to overhaul the food safety system while in office.

On Monday, the FDA made clear that the pistachio recall is unrelated to the ongoing salmonella problems in peanuts.

FDA officials also said all pistachio products were from the same 2008 crop year.

"The fact that a customer of the company found the problem is a sign that at least somebody's watching," DeWaal said. "But consumers certainly wish that the government had a more robust system so they could identify these problems before they even leave the plant."

A full list of recalled products, including Kraft Back to Nature Nantucket Blend Trail Mix and Kroger's Private Selection Shelled Pistachios, can be found on the FDA's web site.

Symptoms of salmonella include fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain.