Aw, Nuts!

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Possibly the only people happy last Tuesday when the Setton Pistachio
recall was expanded to include last year’s entire crop were the folks at
Peanut
Corp. of America
.

Finally, they’re out of the news for a while.

The Peanut Corp. of America recall, which started in
January and continues
to this day
, stemmed from salmonella contamination that sickened 700 and
killed nine. Close to 4,000 foods have been removed from shelves. Kellogg alone
destroyed $70 million worth of product.

Closer to home, in Terra Bella in Tulare County, there are no reports of illness so far from the Setton Pistachio
recall that started in
late March and also continues
. Food industry experts say it could well
reach the scope of the peanut recalls in terms of numbers of products removed.

“Products are going to be added every day as
companies discover they used Setton
pistachios,” Caroline Smith DeWaal of the non-profit Center for Science in the Public
Interest told USA Today.
“It’s going to take a while for the dust to settle.”

The contamination apparently occurred because Setton had been
processing raw and roasted pistachios on the same production lines without
adequate cleaning between uses, Food and Drug Administration Associate
Commissioner David Acheson told USAToday “Not a good idea.”

Also not
a good idea: Leaving it up to companies to decide whether they feel like
reporting contamination to the FDA.

Kraft
Foods discovered a problem with salmonella in trail mix in December 2007, The
Washington Post
reports. It took the company until March 2009 to tell the FDA.

“We
believed there was no public health risk” because the trail mix never left
Kraft’s plant, a company spokeswoman told the Post.

Something similar happened in the peanut recall,
though PCA’s lack of reporting clearly had more of a cover-up component
- it knew its plant was contaminated and not only kept quiet but also continued
to ship contaminated products anyway. PCA officials turned its reports over to
inspectors only after officials threatened
to arrest them
under bioterrorism
laws.

So how do
these things go on for so long without the people allegedly in charge of
protecting our food supply even noticing?

Though
the trail isn’t clear with the pistachios, in the case of the peanuts the FDA
ceded all inspections to the Georgia Agriculture Department. Over several
years, that agency found
numerous health concerns
but let the company off the hook with a promise to
fix problems the next day.

It
appears that in the pistachio recall, state officials also handled the
inspections. According to msnbc.com, California Department of
Public Health inspectors last visited the plant in April 2008 and gave it a
clean bill of health.

There’s
just something about that timeline that doesn’t make sense.

Kraft finds a problem in 2007. The state says
everything is A-OK in 2008. Later that year, Setton Pistachio
testing starts turning up salmonella, though it says the
products were destroyed
. In 2009, the company recalls the entire harvest
from the previous year.

If the feds
can’t or won’t take responsibility for food safety – there are a number
of bills pending in
Congress
that would make them do just that but already the opposition has
started the end-of-the-world
hype
– then California
must.

For
economic reasons, California
must ensure that its massive growing and processing industries can produce
foods that are safe for consumers. Investing in that goal makes
financial sense
.

For
humanitarian reasons, California
must ensure that its residents can eat without fear of winding up in the
emergency room or worse.

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