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South Florida Supermarkets Send Pistachios Packing

Bob LaMendola, South Florida Sun Sentinel

April 1, 2009

Pistachios and products containing the nuts vanished from South Florida store shelves Tuesday, as retailers reacted to salmonella contamination that forced a nut recall.

No cases of salmonella infection have been traced to tainted pistachios, but several major supermarkets -- including Publix and Winn-Dixie -- said they were heeding warnings of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that consumers eat no pistachio products until further notice.

"We're going with the FDA. All products that may contain pistachios are being removed from our shelves, just as a precaution," said Kim Jaeger, a spokeswoman for Publix in South Florida.

Two million pounds of nuts were recalled Monday by Setton Pistachio in Terra Bella, Calif., after tests by Kraft and the FDA detected salmonella on Setton nuts. Salmonella, a bacteria, causes gastrointestinal symptoms that can be dangerous or even fatal in severe cases.

Some of the company's shelled pistachios were sold in Florida and six Southern states under the Setton Farms brand, in 9-ounce packages. Most of the recalled nuts were sold in bulk bags of up to 1 ton, to three dozen wholesalers, which then shipped them to food makers across the nation.

But food experts said the pistachio recall would not come close to the huge effect of salmonella-tainted peanuts recalled starting in January. That ongoing outbreak involved at least 35 million pounds of nuts and forced the recall of 3,900 products. Almost 700 people were stricken.

The recalled pistachios make up only a tiny fraction of the 450 million pounds expected to be harvested in California this year, said Bob Klein, president of the Administrative Committee for Pistachios, a trade group. California ranks second to Iran in growing the nuts.

What's more, 95 percent of pistachios sold in the United States are eaten as plain nuts, not made into countless products as are peanuts, Klein said. Pistachios go into only a few brands of trail mix, baked goods, snack bars and ice cream. Most pistachio ice cream is made with almonds and flavoring, not nuts, Klein said.

"I'm not going to say whether the FDA overreacted or not," Klein said. "We sure would like to be able to inform consumers better which the safe products are." The FDA has said it would post information online about safe brands of pistachios.

Most pistachios are sold roasted, which kills salmonella. But the nuts can be contaminated after cooking, by pests and water leaks in food warehouses, said David Babcock, a Seattle attorney and food safety specialist.

Like four prior peanut contamination outbreaks since 2003, the tainted pistachios should teach consumers that nuts are vulnerable to salmonella like chicken and raw produce, Babcock said.

Some retailers, including Costco and Whole Foods Market, said they had not removed pistachios from shelves.

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