Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) is now taking its place beside peanuts, pistachios, and powdered milk as a food ingredient causing recalls of many, many individual products.

The nation’s top food safety officials appeared at press conference late Thursday to detail how they came to find Salmonella contamination at a North Las Vegas food processing plant that makes hydrolyzed vegetable protein for customers around the world.

Hydrolyzed vegetable protein is a common ingredient used most frequently as a flavor enhancer in many processed foods, including soups, sauces, chilies, stews, hot dogs, gravies, seasoned snack foods, dips and dressings.

By the time the press conference headed by Commissioner Margaret Hamburg of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ended, 56 separate products from a half dozen different companies were already on the government’s master list of hydrolyzed vegetable protein-related recalls.

No illnesses have been associated with the hydrolyzed vegetable protein recalls.

Hamburg credited FDA’s new Reportable Food Registry for the tip that led investigators to the Basic Food Flavors processing plant in North Las Vegas, where the Salmonella problem was discovered.

Officials believe the contamination dates back to September 2009.  The tip on FDA’s new Reportable Food Registry (Registry), an electronic portal for the food industry to report when there is reasonable probability that an article of food will cause serious adverse health consequences, was made in late February.

It came down-stream customer of Basic Food Flavors that was doing product testing on its own, and found Salmonella in the hydrolyzed vegetable protein.  FDA declined to name the tipster.

“Our investigators were able to identify this problem before any illnesses occurred,” Hamburg said.  “While the investigation is continuing, the agency is supporting reasonable steps to continue to protect the public health.”

Those steps could involve recalls of hundreds, if not thousands, of individual food products.  Basic Food Flavors is recalling all its hydrolyzed vegetable protein in both powder and paste forms that it has processed since last Sept. 17.

Only HVP manufactured by Basic Food Flavors is involved, but this is a company that uses giant rail cars to move its product.

The strain found by FDA is Salmonella Tennessee, found in one production lot.

“This situation clearly underscores the need for new food safety legislation to equip FDA with the tools we need to prevent contamination,” said Dr. Jeff Farrar, associate commissioner for food protection for FDA’s Office of Foods.

At the news conference, officials said FDA would have “zero tolerance” for any Basic Food Flavors hydrolyzed vegetable protein in ready-to-eat products.  If, however, the ingredient is used in products with a “kill step” process, FDA will likely not ask for it to be recalled.

Farrar said he could not estimate the total number of products that ultimately might be subject to recall because of the bad protein.

“Our approach to this is risk-based,” he said.

Just three ingredients last year resulted in recalls of 3,036 individual products.  Products made with peanut butter or paste from the ill-fated Peanut Corporation of America, pistachios from Setton Pistachios, and powdered milk from Plainview Cooperative were all called back for Salmonella contamination.

Basic Food Flavors will now be added to list of companies who’ve let their customers down.  FDA has already given it a special website with a database of all the product recalls it has caused.

Food Safety News invited the company to comment, but it did not respond.  Basic Food Flavors posts its Health Permit from the South Nevada Health Department along with other documents including its HACCP plan on the company website.

That website also features a photo gallery of the facility, including pictures of new equipment being installed. It says: “Basic Food Flavors, established in 1980, prides itself on producing high quality product with personalized service at competitive pricing.  Our investment in the [hydrolyzed vegetable protein] market is unsurpassed.”

Even before the federal food safety officials showed up to speak with reporters, three companies issued press releases for hydrolyzed vegetable protein-related recalls on Thursday.

The first recall Thursday was from Beaverton, OR-based Reser’s Fine Foods Inc., with a list of its dips and dressings.

Next to put up a recall was Canton, TX-based Homemade Gourmet, for its Tortilla Soup Mix.

And, ending the day came a recall from Chatsworth, CA-based Earth Island for a long list of its “Follow Your Heart” brands of tofu, pasta, and various other things.

The complete list, which is likely to get longer today, can now be found on the FDA database.  Other companies that have contributed products to the hydrolyzed vegetable protein recall list include Thumb Oilseed, American Pecan, Johnny’s Fine Foods, Heartland Foods, Castella Imports, and Tim’s Cascade Snacks.

The first hydrolyzed vegetable protein recall occurred just one week ago.