This week's announcement of pistachio recalls is yet another example of what's wrong with foodborne illness prevention in the United States.
Setton Farms, the second-largest pistachio processor in the United States, initiated a recall this week of approximately one million pounds of pistachios. The recall followed on the heels of Kraft Foods – a Setton customer – having advised FDA that a sample of roasted pistachios was contaminated with Salmonella.
Accidental mixing of raw pistachios with roasted nuts is suspected to be the source of the contamination. According to a company spokesperson, a Kraft Foods auditor reported – following an inspection of the Setton pistachio processing facility – that the California plant was not adequately segregating its raw and processed pistachios. Setton has declined to comment on that observation, saying that their investigation is still underway.
FDA has reported that the contamination involves "multiple" strains of Salmonella. This would support the hypothesis of raw nuts having been mixed with roasted nuts. According to Bill Marler, writing on Marler Blog, four different Salmonella serotypes – Montevideo, Newport, Seftenberg and Larochelle – have been found in the contaminated pistachios.
While consumers should be grateful that Kraft Foods discovered the contamination and notified FDA before another major Salmonella outbreak had a chance to become established – as happened in the case of the contaminated peanuts – we must ask why Setton lacked the necessary controls to ensure that its roasted pistachios were protected from possible contamination with raw nuts. And we also have to wonder why Setton did not have the necessary testing program in place to detect Salmonella and other contaminants in its production environment before product is shipped.
The most reliable and cost-effective place to detect microbiological contamination is at or near the beginning of the farm-to-fork food production and distribution chain. It is fortunate that Kraft's actions prevented US and international consumers from becoming, once again, the canaries in the mineshaft.