FRESNO, Calif. - Federal food safety officials are warning consumers they should stop eating all foods containing pistachios while they figure out the source of a possible salmonella contamination.
The FDA is checking safety and hygiene records, retesting samples and warning consumers not to eat anything that may have pistachios until FDA officials track down the source.
Still reeling from the national salmonella outbreak in peanuts, the Food and Drug Administration said central California-based Setton Farms, the nation's second-largest pistachio processor, was voluntarily recalling all of its 2008 crop -- more than 1 million pounds of nuts.
"Our advice to consumers is that they avoid eating pistachio products, and that they hold onto those products," said Dr. David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food safety. "The number of products that are going to be recalled over the coming days will grow, simply because these pistachio nuts have then been repackaged into consumer-level containers."
It could cost processors millions of dollars, but they're backing the FDA's warning, even though only a third of one percent of their pistachios is affected.
"Until such time as the FDA gets a handle on all the products, all the brand names, all the places tainted pistachios may have gone, this type of recall we believe is necessary," said Richard Matoian, Western Pistachio Association.
Two people called the FDA complaining of gastrointestinal illness that could be associated with the nuts, but the link hasn't been confirmed, Acheson said. Still, the plant decided to shut down late last week, officials said.
The recalled nuts represent a small fraction of the 60 million pounds of pistachios that the company's plant can process each year and an even smaller portion of the 278 million pounds produced in the state in the 2008 season, according to the Fresno-based Administrative Committee for Pistachios.
California alone is the second-largest producer of pistachios in the world.
The FDA learned about the problem last Tuesday, when Kraft Foods Inc. notified the agency that it had detected salmonella in roasted pistachios through routine product testing. Kraft and the Georgia Nut Co. recalled their Back to Nature Nantucket Blend trail mix the next day.
The FDA contacted Setton Farms and California health officials shortly afterward.
By Friday, grocery operator Kroger Co. recalled one of its lines of bagged pistachios because of possible salmonella contamination, saying the California plant also supplied its nuts. Those nuts were sold in 31 states.
Because Setton Farms shipped 2,000-pound bags of nuts to 36 wholesalers across the country, it will take weeks to figure out how many products could be affected, said Jeff Farrar, chief of the Food and Drug Branch of the California Department of Public Health.
Setton Farms, based in Terra Bella, a rural hamlet in Tulare County, did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
"It will be safe to assume based on the volume that this will be an ingredient in a lot of different products, and that may possibly include things like ice cream and cake mixes," Farrar said. "The firm is already turning around trucks in transit to bring those back to the facility."
The FDA and the industry say the detection proves the system works. Consumer advocates aren't convinced.
"We can't be relying on the honor system of companies testing when they feel like it and testing if they happen to do so to find these kinds of contaminants," said Sarah Klein, Center for Science in the Public Interest.
But the FDA doesn't mandate salmonella testing. They rely primarily on industries to do the right things. There are efforts on Capitol Hill to change that and give the FDA more teeth to enforce food safety.
Salmonella, the most common cause of food-borne illness, is a bacteria that causes diarrhea, fever and cramping. Most people recover, but the infection can be life-threatening for children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.
For nuts, roasting is supposed to kill the bacteria. But problems can occur if the roasting is not done correctly or if roasted nuts are re-contaminated. That can happen if mice, rats or birds get into the facility.
Last winter, a national salmonella outbreak was blamed on a Georgia company under federal investigation for flouting safety procedures and knowingly shipping contaminated peanuts.
The outbreak is still ongoing. More than 690 people in 46 states have gotten sick. Nearly 3,900 products made with peanut ingredients from Peanut Corp of America have been recalled.
California public health authorities have taken hundreds of samples at Setton's processing facility, but the exact type of salmonella has not yet been determined, Farrar said. The food companies' own tests isolated four different types of salmonella, but none were the same strain as the one found in the peanuts, Acheson said.
Setton Farms is owned by the Commack, New York-based Setton International Foods, Inc., which sells nuts, dried fruit, edible seed, chocolate and yogurt coated candies.