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Aw, Nuts!

by Indy, published

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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