Pistachio Recall Could Be a Catalyst for FDA Overhaul

By Sarah Amandolar

Will the pistachio recall, the second food borne illness to strike American nut processors this year, finally prompt FDA improvements?

Routine Testing Caught Contamination

The recall was prompted by a “potential salmonella contamination,” and is considered a “precautionary measure” taken by several retailers and suppliers, including Frito-Lay snack foods and the Kroger Co. grocery store chain, according to Reuters.

The contamination was first detected nearly two weeks ago during “unrequired testing” by a Kraft Foods Inc. manufacturer, according to The Associated Press. Plant workers in Illinois discovered the contamination after checking a batch of roasted nuts being prepared for trail mix. Kraft hired private auditors who found that contamination might have started at a central California processing facility.

But food manufacturers are not required “to test the safety of their products” by the FDA or the state, so if Kraft had not taken the initiative to test the pistachios, the product “probably would still be on the market.”

In response, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and outspoken food safety critic, has teamed with a group of lawmakers pushing for tougher FDA regulations. DeGette told the AP, “since there’s no national standards for this, some companies don’t bother to test at all.”

Separately, the Kroger grocery store chain has also recalled jars of its Lite Mayo sold in three Midwestern states due to potential salmonella contamination. Although illnesses related to the mayonnaise have not been reported, Kroger has told customers not to eat it, and to return the jars to the grocery store, CBS News reported.

Reactions: The FDA; Trust for America’s Health

On its Web site, the FDA reports that this latest incident of “contamination involves multiple strains of Salmonella.” And although “several illnesses have been reported by consumers,” whether pistachio products are to blame has not yet been determined. The FDA is currently “conducting genetic testing of the samples to pursue all links.”

Jeff Levi, the executive director of Trust for America’s Health, released a statement calling the pistachio recall “the latest reminder of how vulnerable our food safety system is.” The FDA is inadequately prepared, “out-of-date, under-resourced, and understaffed,” the statement read. And although Kraft’s quick response “is also encouraging,” the system should be refocused to prevent contamination “through the entire food production process."

Background: Peanut butter recall and FDA issues

In January, the FDA recommended that Americans “postpone eating” products containing peanut butter and peanut paste, including ice cream, cookies and candy, due to concerns over a salmonella outbreak. More than 80 companies may have bought contaminated peanut butter made by the Peanut Corporation of America.

That month, nine FDA scientists wrote a letter to then President-elect Barack Obama asking him to fix the “broken” organization. A slew of problems at the FDA are “placing the American people at risk,” they explained. The group also charged that some products are allowed on the market without FDA approval, some are improperly labeled and that even though there was an internal investigation into the accusations, “absolutely nothing” came of it.