Friday, April 3, 2009

Food Safety Working Group: Stop The Insanity!

April 3, 2009

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
- Albert Einstein

FDA and the California Department of Public Health held a teleconference for accredited journalists on March 30th to brief the media on the Setton Pistachio recall situation. The tone of this teleconference – a transcript is available on the FDA web site – was upbeat; the system was working properly, Setton and Kraft acted responsibly, FDA and California were ahead of the curve.

Since then, additional information has been released that is not as reassuring. According to Associated Press, FDA's investigations have expanded to include Setton's Commack, NY production facility, which uses pistachios from the Terra Bella (California) plant in its chocolate-covered and yogurt-covered nuts and dried fruit products. The New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets is assisting in that investigation.

More worrisome was the revelation reported by Elizabeth Weise of USA Today that Setton Pistachio's own lab tests had revealed a Salmonella contamination problem for several months before Kraft Foods blew the whistle on the situation. And Setton used the same machinery to handle both raw and roasted pistachios.   

While FDA believes that the Salmonella-positive pistachios were destroyed rather than distributed, a Setton spokesperson was unable to confirm the destruction when asked.

During its investigation of Peanut Corporation of America, FDA discovered that the company's Texas production facility had never registered with the Texas Department of State Health Services, and had never been inspected prior to the Salmonella outbreak investigation. Today, the Washington Post reported that FDA identified 20 previously unknown and unregistered peanut facilities as part of the PCA outbreak/recall activities. The agency is not releasing the names or locations of those unregistered facilities, but indicated that these 20 facilities would be visited "shortly".

The demands on FDA's inspection and lab resources during the peanut Salmonella outbreak were overwhelming. And the pistachio investigation has followed hard on the heels of the peanut outbreak. FDA is desperately in need of more trained inspectors, more experienced lab personnel, and more funding. And a better statutory framework for its programs.

If ever there was doubt about the urgency of the need to revamp the US regulatory approach to our food safety system, today's news should squelch any desire for foot-dragging on the part of the Obama Administration, Congress, and the Food Safety Working Group.

Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.

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