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Ingredient-Based Recalls Used To Prevent Outbreaks

Close to 5,000 food products were recalled this year because they contained ingredients the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) said were possibility contaminated with salmonella.

Ingredient-driven product recalls are not exactly new for FDA, but never before have they been used on such a broad scale.  The way these recalls began did not leave the federal government’s food safety agencies much choice.

“This was an ingredient-driven outbreak, in which a contaminated ingredient affected many different products that are distributed through various channels and consumed in various settings.” Assistant Surgeon General Ali Khan told Congress as he recalled the Peanut Corporation of America outbreak.

“Peanut butter and peanut paste are common ingredients in cookies, crackers, cereal, candy, ice cream, pet treats, and other foods, said Khan, who is deputy director of the National Center for Zoonotic, Vector-Borne, and Enteric Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  “Mass food distribution can lead to widely distributed nationwide outbreaks.”

The recalls of products containing either peanut butter or peanut paste made by now bankrupt PCA at its plants in Blakely, GA and Plainview, TX were well underway when Khan appeared before lawmakers.

The PCA outbreak spanned the period from September 2008 to March 2009.  Afterwards, CDC said 714 people in 46 states were infected with the Salmonella strain known as Typhimurium.  Nine people died in the peanut butter outbreak.

Early in the investigation, CDC thought the contamination might be limited to large containers of the PCA-made King Nut peanut butter used in institutions like schools, jails and nursing homes.   The Minnesota Health Department found the bacteria in an opened jar of King Nut, and then Connecticut found it in an un-opened five pound King Nut can.  That pretty well proved PCA had a production problem.

But it was not going to be that simple.   CDC was getting reports from one state after another from people who were not confined to institutions and who were getting sick from eating a variety of peanut products.

When two brands of pre-packaged peanut butter crackers made at the same plant with PCA peanut paste, the food detectives pretty much knew they had cracked the case and that recalls of all the products using PCA ingredients would have to be ordered.

And they were.

While PCA was filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, FDA was making sure manufacturers of brownies, cakes, candy, cookies, crackers, donuts, seasonings, toppings, snacks and anything else that contained peanut butter or paste from the ill-fated Virginia-based company were recalled.

Almost all were “voluntary” recalls, but when Irvington, N.J.-based Westco Fruit and Nut opted not participate, FDA sent in armed U.S. Marshals who seized $34,500 in PCA products.  After that, FDA had no more trouble with its volunteers.

All totaled 3,916 products were removed from store shelves because they contained ingredients, either peanut butter or paste, from PCA.  More than 200 companies were getting product from tiny PCA, which at best processed 2.5 percent of America’s peanuts.   All those ingredient-related recalls are a large part of why the PCA Salmonella outbreak cost the economy an estimated $1.5 billion.

Last spring, Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, CA–the second largest pistachio processor in the nation–thought it had a minor problem in one or two production lines.

Kraft Foods had found four strains of Salmonella in trail mix containing Setton’s pistachios, In fact in the previous 15 months, Kraft–makers of George Nut–found Salmonella in test samples on four occasions.  The Georgia Nut plant had been tested and scrubbed when Kraft finally figured out pistachios were the single common ingredient in all the batches that had tested positive for Salmonella.

At first, Setton thought the Salmonella contamination Kraft discovered was due to a sanitation error in one area.  About two million pounds of pistachios were voluntarily recalled.

Health officials from both FDA and the State of California descended the Terra Bella plant, taking samples for laboratory tests.  Salmonella contamination was in “critical areas” of Setton Pistachio and everything it processed from the 2008 harvest, in-shell, roasted and raw pistachios had to be recalled.

From the get-go, FDA knew Setton supplied more than three dozen other wholesalers and manufacturers with processed pistachios that were either re-packaged for retail sale or used as ingredients in other food products.   Frito-Lay, Planters, Costco’s Kirkland brand and Whole Foods 365 brand were all on the Setton customer list.

The second big ingredient-based recall of 2009 was underway.   FDA did not have to send out the Marshals even once this time.

FDA warned consumers not to eat any pistachios or products containing pistachios unless they could determine they do not contain recalled Setton products.  To lessen the impact on the industry, FDA this time partnered with CAL-PURE and the Western Pistachio Association by linking to an industry-sponsored web site that listed products that were not made with Setton Pistachios.

Setton Pistachios with labels “Packed after June 1, 2009” also did not have to be recalled.

A total of 664 products containing pistachios were recalled.  The steps taken to educate consumers while executing the second ingredient recall of 2009 appear to have protected the pistachios from the sort of steep sales drop suffered by the peanut industry.

Next up for a carefully orchestrated “voluntary recall” of products containing a specific ingredient was Minnesota’s Plainview Milk Products Cooperative.   About 20 percent of the Minnesota Coop’s plant is dedicated to making dry milk products, including whey protein, fruit stabilizers, gums (thickening agents) and nonfat dry milk.

Salmonella was found in a 100-gram package of Dairyshake powder, one of the products made with an ingredient made by Plainview.  FDA inspected the Cooperative’s facilities, but found Salmonella on equipment or in other products.   It nevertheless halted its dry milk product production and initiated a recall going back two years.

Plainview does not sell anything directly to the public.  Its customers, however, do.  Manufacturers of cakes, candy, drink mixes, instant nonfat dry milk, oatmeal, toppings, and yogurt all followed with “voluntary recalls.” Plainview’s action resulted in 272 separate products being pulled from retail store shelves.

No additional tests were positive for Salmonella and there have been no reports of illnesses associated with any the Plainview recalls.

The Coop wants to resume production of its dry milk products, but has not yet received approval from FDA, USDA, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

In preparing for re-inspection, the 110-year old business will in the future ban the wearing of street shoes in the plant.  It is providing employees with special disinfected boots to wear while working, and requiring visitors to wear disposable protective boots.  It will also use a key-card system to restrict access to certain areas.

Plainview has continued its regular milk processing, but news of the recall earlier in the summer caused it to send a letter to their dairy farmer members assuring them of prompt payments for milk.

Together, the three ingredient-driven recalls have involved at least 4,852 different products.   Even consumer advocates have noted the most difficult part of ingredient recalls is knowing what’s being recalled and what is okay to eat.   The fact that no illnesses can be linked to either pistachios or those dried milk products mean ingredient recalls really do work.

Powdered milk photo courtesy CDC/ Barbara Jenkins, NIOSH

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