Routine test tamed 2d nut crisis

Associated Press / April 2, 2009
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TERRA BELLA, Calif. - The reason it didn't take dozens of illnesses for federal regulators to learn about salmonella-tainted pistachios has nothing to do with federal regulations.

Routine but unrequired testing by a manufacturer for Kraft Foods Inc. first detected the contamination almost two weeks ago, when workers at a plant in Illinois decided to check roasted nuts going into huge vats of trail mix. Private auditors hired by Kraft later found problems they think caused the contamination at a supplier's processing facility in central California.

If Kraft had not chosen to prioritize testing, 2 million pounds of pistachios that touched off government warnings and a nationwide salmonella scare this week probably would still be on the market. Neither the Food and Drug Administration nor state laws require food manufacturers to test the safety of their products.

"We're relying on companies to find the contaminated foods on their own, and since there's no national standards for this, some companies don't bother to test at all," said Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, a critic of the nation's food safety system

DeGette and numerous other lawmakers are calling for the FDA to develop testing rules for every segment of the food industry, and want companies to be required to release test results.

Federal health officials warned people this week to avoid eating all pistachios and products containing them while they determine which products may be contaminated. The nuts Kraft manufacturer Georgia Nut Co. tested on March 20 came from Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., the second-largest pistachio processor in the nation, which has recalled more than 2 million pounds of its roasted pistachios.

The investigation of tainted pistachios contrasts with that in this year's salmonella outbreak involving peanuts, the subject of a criminal investigation and thousands of recalls. The contamination was not traced to peanuts until hundreds of people around the country got sick. The company involved, Peanut Corp. of America, had tested its products, but inspection records show that in some cases it shipped peanuts it thought to be tainted.

Private industry reported the pistachio problem immediately, rather than waiting for public health officials to intervene. And as of yesterday, authorities had not confirmed any illnesses.