Three years ago, hazelnuts started to build up a bad safety record. It began with a recall of 29,861 pounds of shelled nuts for potential Salmonella contamination at the end of 2009, followed by a smaller recall of 75 pounds in January of 2010. Later that year, an E. coli outbreak linked to in-shell filberts sickened 8 Midwesterners over the holiday season.
Before this time, no recorded outbreaks had been tied to U.S. hazelnuts.
This series of events forced domestic hazelnut producers – 99 percent of whom are situated in Oregon’s Willamette Valley – to re-examine growing and shelling processes with an eye to making a safer product.
One company that has done this is Willamette Hazelnut Growers (formerly Willamette Filbert Growers), the company that recalled nearly 30,000 pounds of hazelnuts in the winter of 2009 after Salmonella was found on nuts processed by its shelling operation.
The recall was particularly large because the company shells not only its own hazelnuts but also those of other area growers who don’t have shelling equipment.
“The recall was a huge setback for the processing business,” explained Operations Manager Michael Severeid in an interview with Food Safety News. “We had to buy everything back at full price and pay our customers. We had to ship it back and pay for the labor of collecting all of the products. It was very expensive.”
Following this setback, the company reached out to a third party microbiology lab for help, developing a manufacturing process that would minimize pathogen contamination.
Now, the company sanitizes all shelled filberts with an organic, water-based spray. Samples of finished product are tested for bacteria.
“The results have to come back negative before product is released,” says Severeid.
The company also swabs the processing facility to test for pathogens.
Initial tests results show that nuts coming out of this new processing line are “very clean,” says Severeid.
Not only will these new measures ensure that product leaving the facility is safe, he explains, but they will also help eliminate the plant as the source of contamination should a future outbreak occur.
Willamette Hazelnut Growers sells its shelled nuts wholesale to processors or retailers, so its operation is not the final stop before product reaches consumers.
“If we know that at least our facility cleaned it and we have data to back that up, then (contamination in a future outbreak) would have happened somewhere else, somewhere further down the line.”
As for the industry as a whole, it is “continuing to aggressively pursue the best practices possible to ensure hazelnuts leaving Oregon are free of pathogens,” said Polly Owen, Manager of the Hazelnut Marketing Board in an e-mailed statement to Food Safety News.
At the grower level, growers are implementing good agricultural practices (GAPs), a set of science-based guidelines for safe growing and harvesting.
“The industry has sessions on the importance of GAPs at their two major meetings each year as well as well as information in their newsletters,” says Owen.
And at the handler level, “the goal is to implement steps that reduce the microbial load and to document the efficacy of those steps,” she says, just as Willamette Hazelnut Growers is doing.
Each plant has their own process in place, says Owen. Most have undergone inspections by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the past two years and are implementing any changes recommended by the agency.© Food Safety News