March 31, 2009 in Nation/World

FDA warns against eating pistachios

Officials explore possible salmonella contamination
Garance Burke Associated Press

FRESNO, Calif. – Federal food safety officials warned Monday that consumers should stop eating all foods containing pistachios while they figure out the source of a possible salmonella contamination.

Still reeling from the national salmonella outbreak in peanuts, the Food and Drug Administration said central California-based Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., the nation’s second-largest pistachio processor, was voluntarily recalling a portion of the roasted nuts its has been shipping since last fall. A Setton spokeswoman said that amounts to more than 2 million pounds of nuts.

“Our advice to consumers is that they avoid eating pistachio products, and that they hold on to those products,” said Dr. David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food safety. “The number of products that are going to be recalled over the coming days will grow, simply because these pistachio nuts have then been repackaged into consumer-level containers.”

Two people called the FDA complaining of gastrointestinal illness that could be associated with the nuts, but the link hasn’t been confirmed, Acheson said. Still, the plant decided to shut down late last week, officials said.

The recalled nuts represent a small fraction of the 60 million pounds of pistachios that the company’s plant can process each year and an even smaller portion of the 278 million pounds produced in the state in the 2008 season, according to the Fresno-based Administrative Committee for Pistachios.

The FDA learned about the problem last Tuesday, when Kraft Foods Inc. notified the agency that it had detected salmonella in roasted pistachios through routine product testing. Kraft and the Georgia Nut Co. recalled their Back to Nature Nantucket Blend trail mix the next day.

The FDA contacted Setton Farms and California health officials shortly afterward.

By Friday, grocery operator Kroger Co. recalled one of its lines of bagged pistachios because of possible salmonella contamination, saying the California plant also supplied its nuts. Those nuts were sold in 31 states.

Because Setton Farms shipped 2,000-pound bags of nuts to 36 wholesalers across the country, it will take weeks to figure out how many products could be affected, said Jeff Farrar, chief of the Food and Drug Branch of the California Department of Public Health.

Setton Farms did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

Salmonella, the most common cause of food-borne illness, is a bacteria that causes diarrhea, fever and cramping. Most people recover, but the infection can be life-threatening for children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

For nuts, roasting is supposed to kill the bacteria. But problems can occur if the roasting is not done correctly or if roasted nuts are re-contaminated. That can happen if mice, rats or birds get into the facility.

Last winter, a national salmonella outbreak was blamed on a Georgia company under federal investigation for flouting safety procedures and knowingly shipping contaminated peanuts.

The outbreak is still ongoing. More than 690 people in 46 states have gotten sick.

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