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Pistachio growers are shell shocked by FDA warning

The agency has warned consumers to not eat the nuts because of potential salmonella contamination. Growers say it was an overreaction to the discovery of the disease in a small part of the crop.

April 01, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

Supermarkets pulled pistachios and some pistachio-laden foods from their shelves Tuesday, moves resulting from this week's Food and Drug Administration warning to consumers not to eat the nuts because they could be tainted with salmonella.

The FDA is scrambling to prevent a repeat of a recent salmonella outbreak from peanuts that has sickened more than 690 people in 46 states. And in Sacramento on Tuesday, a lawmaker introduced legislation to tighten safety standards for foods processed in California.

Earlier this week, Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., a San Joaquin Valley nut packer, recalled 2 million pounds of pistachios because of potential salmonella contamination. The company's nuts tested positive during routine checks at a plant operated by Kraft Foods Inc. and other food manufacturers, according to the FDA.

Like Peanut Corp. of America, the company blamed for the widespread outbreak from peanuts, Setton is a bulk provider of nuts to food manufacturers and wholesalers. That means that the contaminated pistachios could have ended up in a variety of processed foods, including ice cream, cookies, candies and trail mix.

Although the pistachios that Setton is recalling represent less than 1% of the Golden State's 278-million-pound crop, the FDA defended its blanket warning -- even though it will almost certainly be a blow to the state's $539-million pistachio industry.

"It is always an upset to the industry when we have to put consumer advice out like this, but . . . we don't know where those pistachios have gone, and we don't want to wait until we find out and then learn that people were getting sick," said David Acheson, the FDA's assistant commissioner for food safety. "We know the pistachio industry will suffer losses as a consequence."

Acheson said some consumers have reported being sickened by pistachios. But the FDA so far has been unable to confirm any cases of illness linked to salmonella-tainted pistachios.

However, routine checks performed by food processors yielded 10 positive salmonella tests, all of them linked to pistachios supplied by Setton, according to the FDA. The tests have identified at least three strains of salmonella, but not the variety that caused the peanut-linked salmonella outbreak in recent months.

Industry officials and Kraft said the contamination was probably a result of not segregating raw and roasted nuts during processing.

Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) introduced legislation Tuesday that he said would "close significant gaps in laws governing food inspections, testing and reporting of contamination."

The bill would require food processors to adopt detailed plans to ensure their products were safe, mandate periodic testing of food at California's food-processing facilities and tell companies to report to state authorities within 24 hours any positive test result for a dangerous contaminant.

Food pathogen scares in recent years involving tomatoes, peppers, spinach and lettuce have cost California farmers millions in lost sales. The pistachio industry is the latest to take a hit. California is far and away the nation's No. 1 pistachio grower, producing 98% of the domestic crop. Globally, it trails only Iran in pistachio farming. About 60% of the crop is exported, making pistachios an important source of foreign currency for both the state and the nation.

Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs in Southern California, said it pulled Private Selection Shelled Pistachios sold in many of the Kroger-owned chains on Friday. Setton Farms supplied Kroger's pistachios for that brand. The supermarket company also said it was monitoring manufacturer recalls to know what other items should be removed.

Albertsons, which has 233 stores in the region, said it was removing all pistachios and products containing pistachios "until we get further information from the FDA and the manufacturer regarding specific product recalls," said Stephanie Martin, a spokeswoman for the chain. Whole Foods also pulled some products.

Those are the types of moves that have the industry concerned.

"The FDA is painting with a pretty broad brush," said Richard Matoian, executive director of the Western Pistachio Assn. in Fresno. "The reality is that only one processor is affected by the voluntary recall, and it involves only a small portion of that company's inventory."

Paramount Farms, the nation's largest pistachio grower, worked Tuesday to limit its damage from the salmonella scare.

The company issued a statement saying that its nuts were not part of the recall and added that "in light of the current situation, we are testing all products in our inventory and are committed to testing all pistachio shipments going forward as a further precautionary measure."

Salmonella is one of the most common causes of food-borne illness, with 40,000 Americans infected each year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It causes diarrhea, fever and cramping and can be life-threatening for children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. About 400 people die from the infection each year.

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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