To steal a lyric or two from the late great jazz and pop singer Peggy Lee, “If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing.”
Three weeks ago, it looked like there would not be much time for dancing at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
In a late afternoon press conference, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the FDA Commissioner; Dr. Jeff Farrar, FDA’s Associate Commissioner for Food Protection; and Dr. Ian Williams, chief of the Outbreak Response and Prevention branch of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were among those standing together to make an announcement that at the time sounded rather scary.
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), a common flavoring agent, made by Basic Food Flavors in North Las Vegas was contaminated with Salmonella and while the nation’s top food safety experts declined to put out their own estimate, reporters were asking if “thousands” or “10,000” products containing HVP from Basic Food Flavors might end up being recalled.
As for those press estimates, in reality it has ended up being not so much.
Although its Webpage says 159 products containing HVP have been recalled, FDA’s underlying database shows the actual number is 160.
Based on the experience FDA has had with its other “major product recalls,” the recall of products containing possibility contaminated HVP has probably run its course.
The HVP recalls mark the fourth time in the last two years that FDA has prompted food companies to recall products because the ingredients they purchased from someone else might be contaminated. The first three of these ingredient-based recalls were larger than the HVP experience to date.
More than 3,900 products containing peanut butter or peanut paste from the ill-fated Peanut Corporation of America were recalled beginning in early 2009.
Pistachios from Terre Belle Inc. were contained in 664 products recalled, also in 2009.
Ingredients, mostly powdered milk, from the Plainview Milk Cooperation were found in 272 products recalled in late 2009.
Like Basic Food Flavors, none of the other three companies sold directly to the public.
According to experts outside the government, there are a couple of reasons why the HVP-related recalls have not produced a longer list.
First, while Basic Food Flavors is a major–if not the major–supplier of HVP to the food industry, the contamination was limited to the 10,000 pound lot as the company stated in a belated statement on what happened. FDA says the contamination was found inside the facility, and shut production down.
Second, as the food safety professionals said at their March 4 press conference, man, if not most of the foods that contain HVP as an ingredient, have been put through a “kill step” during processing which would end any risk to people from the pathogen.
The Salmonella problem at Basic Food Flavors dated back to Sept. 17, 2009. FDA has not connected the strain to any illnesses.
“And that led us to determine what a reasonable risk-based approach would be which is where we are now where we are supporting the recall of some products with HVP in it but not products where there has been a kill step or where there will be a kill step for Salmonella, kill steps that are validated,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, FDA’s deputy commissioner.
Sharfstein was acting commissioner when he called for the recall of products containing Terra Bella pistachios contaminated with Salmonella even though none were ever connected to illnesses.