The Californian company recalled two million pounds of pistachios in March after they were found to be tainted with salmonella through external testing by Kraft Foods, but federal health officials say the company had already known of the contamination for at least six months.
The Setton Pistachio inspection report said: “After receiving sample analysis results for your roasted pistachio products that were positive for Salmonella beginning in October 2008, your firm continued to process roasted pistachio products under the same processing conditions until March 2009.”
If correct procedures are observed, roasting should kill salmonella, but it is thought that raw pistachios may have come into contact with roasted ones at the plant prior to distribution, causing the contamination.
At the end of March, assistant commissioner for food protection at the FDA David Acheson said that Setton Pistachio knew it had a salmonella problem revealed by its own tests, but it had re-roasted tainted nuts, an accepted way of killing salmonella after it has been identified.
But the newly-released FDA inspection report said that the firm lacked controls to ensure that the roasting step was effective against salmonella. After reviewing 14 lots of roasted pistachios, ten of those lots had had raw pistachios packaged on the same equipment beforehand, it said.
“Your firm continued to distribute roasted pistachio products after the first private laboratory sample of your roasted pistachio product was reported positive for Salmonella and did not evaluate the adequacy of your roasting process to assure that your roasted pistachio products were free of microorganisms of public health significance,” it said.
“Your firm also did not attempt to determine potential routes of cross contamination within your facility between raw pistachios and roasted pistachios after your firm began receiving positive Salmonella sample results for your roasted pistachio products.”
The incident echoes the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) situation earlier this year, which also found salmonella in some of its products but continued distribution. By contrast, the PCA contamination led to nearly 700 illnesses and at least nine deaths, whereas no illnesses have been reported as a result of the contaminated pistachios.
The FDA said that the discovery of salmonella originating at Setton Pistachio is an example of how the food safety net should work: By recalling products to prevent an illness outbreak, rather than reacting after an illness has spread.