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Mystery of tainted pistachios could take weeks to solve

By Carrie Peyton
Published: Wednesday, Apr. 1, 2009 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Federal officials trying to trace potentially tainted pistachios say it could take weeks before all the products involved are tracked down.

“I think the vast majority of pistachio products are going to be OK,” Dr. David Acheson, the FDA’s associate commissioner for foods, said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Still, Acheson cautioned consumers against eating anything with pistachios, from cookies to ice cream, until investigators from the Food and Drug Administration and the California Department of Public Health learn more.

Eight to 10 state public health workers are teaming up with federal officials to interview 36 wholesalers who buy from Setton Pistachio, a large California processor.

The company recalled at least 1 million pounds of pistachios after Kraft Foods Inc. testing detected salmonella in some of Setton’s nuts.

The recall comes amid another for spices distributed by a Bay Area plant, and in the wake of recalls in the past two years for salmonella or E. coli contamination in peanut butter, tomatoes, peppers, spinach and other products.

Even so, there is no reason to conclude America’s food supply is becoming less safe, said James Gorny, executive director of UC Davis’ Postharvest Technology Center.

“The reality is, the potential for getting food-borne illness is fairly low in this country,” he said. “There’s just a broader awareness” of recalls, Gorny said, plus better techniques to detect contamination and find links between what might have once been seen as unrelated illnesses.

Reported cases of salmonella in the United States rose in the late 1980s and early 1990s but have gone down since, according to Gideon Informatics Inc., a firm that tracks infectious disease trends. Lately salmonella cases have been holding steady at around 15 to 16 per 100,000 Americans annually, the company’s data shows.

The Centers for Disease Control has given itself a goal of reducing food-borne illnesses, so it believes more steps need to be taken to drive those numbers down, said CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell.

“Even holding steady is a concern,” she said. “We really should be in a better place.”

The responsibility for a safer food supply rests in part on the food industry, on academic researchers who can help improve methods, and on a government that has long been “underfunded and undermanned,” Gorny said.

Jaydee Hanson, policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, said while the number of food processors under FDA authority has doubled over the last 30 years, the agency has repeatedly cut inspections.

“What the FDA did for 30 years was trust the producers that they would do the right thing – but never verify that,” Hanson said. “They set up a system that the average FDA regulated facility could expect to see an inspector once every four to five years.”

Gorny, Hanson and others said the Obama administration has begun to turn things around, but much rests with Congress. There are various bills in play that could give the FDA more money and power.

The agency has been seeking authority to order mandatory recalls since 2007, Acheson said, and it also wants greater access to food company records.

The FDA definitely needs more inspectors, Acheson said, and has begun hiring some with additional funds provided in 2008. It expects even more money in 2009.

Still, “we’ll never get to the point where we can have an inspector in every facility,” like slaughterhouses and other meat plants, he said.

The FDA hopes to send more inspectors to where risk is highest; some of the 150,000 facilities it oversees might be checked several times a year, while others might be inspected less often.

“In recalls of this breadth, people are going to say, ‘Wow, I’m worried,’ ” Acheson said. “If you put it in the context of how many people are living in this country, 300 plus million, the numbers of serious food-borne illnesses that are going to take you to the hospital are very small.”

Salmonella, caused by bacteria from human or animal intestines, can leave a healthy adult vomiting, with cramps or diarrhea. Occasionally it’s lethal for young children, the elderly or people with weakened immune systems.

Foods can be contaminated by animal feces, poor sanitation by workers, or cross-contamination in processing.

While some crops are more easily befouled by animals in the field, pistachios are shielded inside a fleshy, yellow-green hull that turns reddish as the nut ripens.

At harvest, they are shaken onto long “catch frames” that lock around the trees, so that no nut touches the ground, and then they are quickly shipped to processing sites before the hull can discolor the shell, said Louise Ferguson, a UC Davis extension tree-crop specialist.

“This has been the first time that we have had any kind of issue like this with pistachios,” she said. “There are very few chances for contamination.”

The 2008 pistachio crop was worth roughly $540 million, according to federal figures. The California crop was harvested on 118,000 acres, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley.

Once nuts are harvested, hulled and dried, Ferguson said, they are usually stored in silos until processors put them through roasting, salting and packaging.

Roasting should kill bacteria that cause salmonella.

Lee Cohen, production manager for Setton International Foods Inc., told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the company suspects its roasted pistachios may have become mixed at its plant with raw nuts that could have contained traces of the bacteria.