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Food safety reform is on the table again

The pistachio warning, coming not long after the peanut product recall, may lead to legislative changes.

April 03, 2009|Mary MacVean

Consumers could be forgiven for feeling a little weary about this week's recall of pistachios that might be contaminated with salmonella.

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 trail mix.

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 regulatory agency."

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.

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mary.macvean@latimes.com

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