WASHINGTON The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday advised the public to temporarily halt its consumption of pistachios until investigators better understand the extent of salmonella contamination detected in lots from a major supplier and where the suspect nuts may have been distributed.
The nuts implicated in the preliminary joint investigation by the FDA and California Department of Public Health, or CDPH, are from California-based Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., which has announced a nationwide voluntary recall of some nuts. Setton Pistachio and sister operation Setton Farms combined claim to be the second-largest processor and packager of pistachio products in the United States. They are owned by Setton International Foods Inc. of Commack, N.Y.
Both FDA and CDPH officials stressed that no illnesses so far have been definitively linked to the nuts and that the advisory was part of a "proactive" strategy to reduce the number of illnesses, if any, ultimately linked to the product. They said single cases of gastro-intestinal illness from West Coast and East Coast cities were reported by people who said they ate pistachios, but the officials indicated that additional tests are required before links to salmonella infection and Setton products can be established.
To date, a handful of products using nuts from Setton have been recalled, including Kraft Back to Nature Nantucket Blend trail mix. But the FDA and CDPH officials indicated that additional products likely would be involved as more information about the national distribution of the nuts comes to light.
In a conference call with reporters, Dr. David Acheson, FDA associate commissioner for foods, said his agency believed that the proactive advisory to temporarily halt pistachio consumption was warranted. Such a course was prudent, he indicated, until investigators sorted out what percentage of the estimated 1 million pounds of pistachios from the 2008 crop handled by Setton may be contaminated and to whom those nuts were resold by 30-plus wholesalers and repackagers.
The contamination problem came to the attention of public health authorities after salmonella was discovered by labs testing trail mix with Setton pistachios on behalf of Kraft Foods Inc., Acheson said. Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft, which notified the public agencies, touching off the joint FDA-CDPH investigation, recalled the trail mix on March 25.
To understand the cause and extent of pistachio contamination problems, government investigators are reviewing Setton's records, processing practices and distribution information and have collected samples for laboratory testing, CDPH officials said Friday. CDPH food and drug branch chief Jeff Farrar said during Monday's conference call that the results of those tests won't be available for several days.
The pistachio contamination is not linked to ongoing recall of peanut products tied to salmonella contamination, the government agencies said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections, particularly in young children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.
Setton Pistachio on Monday said it was voluntarily recalling specific lots of bulk roasted shelled pistachios and 2,000-pound, 1,700-pound, 1,800-pound and 1,000-pound tote bags of roasted in-shell pistachios sold to wholesale customers because of potential salmonella contamination. The nuts in question, which shipped on or after Sept. 1, 2008, are being recalled as a "precautionary measure" after a "small amount of roasted shelled pistachios processed by Setton Pistachio and received by a commercial customer...tested positive for salmonella," the company said.
Retail bags of Setton Farms brand roasted salted shelled pistachios in 9-ounce film bags with UPC Code: 034325020252, and "Best Before" dates between 01/06/10 and 01/19/10 also are being recalled by Setton Pistachio. They were distributed in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The nut processor asked wholesalers who received bulk product and have further processed, repackaged, or distributed the affected products to recall those products and contact the FDA. Setton Pistachio said this was its first recall in 13 years of processing pistachios and added that it "is taking aggressive action to prevent the need for any future recalls of its products."