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FDA sparks pistachio recall

Last year it was leafy greens; this year it's nuts. On the heels of the nationwide peanut butter scare, on March 30, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a blanket federal warning against eating pistachios. The latest salmonella scare has led to the recall of more than 2 million pounds of pistachios shipped since last fall by Setton Pistachio, the nation's second-largest pistachio processor.

Routine testing by food processors yielded 10 positive tests involving multiple strains of salmonella, all from pistachios provided by Setton, which is a bulk provider of nuts to manufacturers and wholesalers. The nuts have been linked to products from Kraft and Kroger's Private Selection brand and may have ended up in a variety of processed foods. A spokesman for Kraft, which first reported the Salmonella contamination to the FDA on March 24 after testing its Back to Nature trail mix, speculated that roasted nuts were likely contaminated with raw nuts during processing.

Though the recalled pistachios represent less than 1 percent of California's total crop, the FDA issued its warning in order to prevent a widespread outbreak like the Peanut Corp. of America debacle, which sickened nearly 700 people in 46 states. In response to the warning, many grocery chains are pulling all products containing pistachios from their shelves.

"It is always an upset to the industry when we have to put consumer advice out like this, but… we don't know where those pistachios have gone, and we don't want to wait until we find out and then learn that people were getting sick," said David Acheson, the FDA's assistant commissioner for food safety.

Pistachio growers and processors, however, see the blanket warning as excessive. "We'd like to see FDA issue a more detailed recall on specific products, because the majority of the industry is not affected," said Richard Motoian, executive director of the Western Pistachio Association, based in Fresno, Calif. "Unfortunately, the FDA statement puts everyone in the same position, as if all products were tainted."

Introduced before the latest scare, a bill in the California legislature would require the state's processors of farm products to test periodically for contaminants and notify the state within 24 hours. But the state's processors believe that industry initiatives are a better fix.

"We've had GMPs in place for 15 years, and this is our first-ever salmonella outbreak," Motoian said. "Once we determine the exact cause of the outbreak, then we can address whether to make changes in the growing, drying or roasting process."

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