Food safety reform is on the table again
The Food and Drug
Administration was tipped off company
found salmonella during%by Kraft Foods Inc. on March 24, after the routine testing.
pistachio warning, coming not long after the peanut product recall, may lead
to legislative changes.
By Mary MacVean
April 3, 2009
Consumers could be forgiven for feeling a little weary
about this week's recall of pistachios that might be contaminated with
It comes just weeks after thousands of products containing peanuts were
voluntarily recalled in a salmonella outbreak that sickened about 700 people,
and follows highly publicized food-borne disease outbreaks connected to
peppers and spinach.
"As consumers, we all have that reaction, 'Here we
go again,' " said Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for
America's Health, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that works to
reform the food safety system.
But the string of alerts keeps food safety on the minds of Americans and
could lead to legislative changes in California and the rest of the country.
The Food and Drug Administration told consumers Monday to stop eating
anything containing pistachios -- an effort to keep people from getting sick
while investigators looked for the source and the extent of the problem.
The government was tipped off by Kraft Foods Inc. on
March 24, after it found salmonella in routine testing and recalled some
The pistachio recall "is the latest reminder of how vulnerable our food
safety system is," Levi said. "It is encouraging that this response
was so quick, but we need to move to a system that focuses on prevention
through the entire food production process."
Like the peanut alert, the recall of potentially contaminated foods with
pistachios may continue for weeks, in part because both products are used as
ingredients in a variety of foods. As of Thursday afternoon, several dozen
products were on the FDA's recall list.
But the two recalls are not related, federal officials said. And there are
marked differences between them.
In January, after several reports of illnesses, the FDA traced the source of
the salmonella outbreak to a Peanut Corp. of America plant in Georgia.
Authorities said nine deaths could be linked to the outbreak. The FDA accused
the company of knowingly shipping products after tests detected salmonella.
The pistachio recall, by Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., was not
triggered by any illness. But Thursday, the FDA said several illnesses had
been reported that could be linked to pistachios.
Once Kraft learned of the positive salmonella test by a company in its supply
chain, it began an investigation, sending auditors to Setton, said Laurie
Guzzinati, a spokeswoman for Kraft Foods. The auditor "observed raw and
roasted pistachios not properly segregated," she said.
Setton, the country's second-largest producer of pistachios, voluntarily
recalled 2 million pounds of the nuts from its 2008 crop.
The pistachios had gone to 36 companies, either for repackaging for sale or
for use as ingredients in such products as ice cream or cake mix, said David
Acheson, the FDA's assistant commissioner for food safety. He said all 36
companies had been contacted.
"It can be literally a needle in a haystack looking for salmonella. . .
. The good news here is that Kraft did find it; they acted independently and
initiated recalls and told us, and we simply followed it up, as we
should," Acheson said.
"In many ways, this is how the food safety system is supposed to work .
. . to protect instead of just react," said George Strait of the FDA's
office of public affairs.
But that won't stop calls for overhauling the food safety system.
Among the changes under consideration in legislation before Congress are
giving the FDA mandatory authority to recall products; requirements for food
safety systems at companies to minimize the chance of contamination during
production; increased inspections; more funding; and a better way to track
products around the country.
"The reality of the basic system at FDA is that there is no requirement
for companies to have in place modern preventive controls," said Mike
Taylor, a professor at the George Washington University School of Public
Health and Health Services and a former FDA official. "A lot of
companies do it, and Kraft is one of the leaders. They're doing the kinds of
things you'd like the whole system to do."
There also are calls to split up the FDA and establish a Food Safety
Administration. That may be premature, Kathleen Sebelius, the nominee for
Health and Human Services secretary, said at her confirmation hearing
Wednesday. First, she said, the FDA should be restored "as a world-class
Consumer and industry groups support reform, and President Obama devoted a
radio address to food safety and has convened a group to study the issue.
In addition, a California bill by two Los Angeles Democrats, Assemblyman Mike
Feuer and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, would require food processors in the
state to have plans in place to prevent contamination and to respond quickly
if it occurred.
The legislation would require periodic testing and that any positive result
for a dangerous contaminant be reported within 24 hours.
Feuer said he was not aware, and expected most consumers did not know, that
testing and reporting results were not mandatory.
"We shouldn't be relying on a good actor to protect the health of an
entire population," he said Wednesday.