Politics & Government

Report finds problems at pistachio plant linked to Salmonella

WASHINGTON — Federal inspectors identified multiple food-safety shortcomings at the Tulare County pistachio processor linked to a Salmonella outbreak earlier this year, a newly available report shows.

Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella detected the bacteria in roasted pistachios in October but did not change its processing procedures until March, the Food and Drug Administration inspectors found. In one instance, the company re-roasted pistachios that had tested positive for Salmonella and blended them together with other nuts for sale.

"Your firm continued to distribute roasted pistachio products after the first private laboratory sample of your roasted pistachio product was reported positive for Salmonella," the FDA inspectors advised the company.

Lee Cohen, general manager of Setton Pistachio, said Friday that the company "adamantly" disagrees with any suggestion that safety wasn't a top priority.

"We share the government's commitment to food safety and have taken aggressive and comprehensive actions to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of our products," Cohen said in a statement.

The FDA's five-page report summarizes 17 separate inspections that took place at the Terra Bella plant between March 26 and April 30. Ten different inspectors swarmed over the facility and reported finding flaws both in the procedures and the physical plant.

The problems, at this point, are considered "inspectional observations" rather than "violations." Taken together, though, inspectors identified a "failure to manufacture, package and store foods under conditions and controls necessary to minimize the potential for growth of microorganisms and contamination."

Specific physical problems ranged from a rusty hole in the roof above one pistachio roaster to "thick layers of dust and debris" in a packaging room. Procedural shortcomings included failure to monitor roasting temperatures and allowing raw and roasted pistachios to potentially come into contact.

"Our investigation is still ongoing," FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said Friday. "It's not complete."

Cohen said the company has "already completed enhancements to our facilities," including making repairs and redesign efforts.

"We have also made numerous changes in our operating procedures and our production process to enhance our efforts to provide the highest quality pistachios to our customers," Cohen said.

Salmonella is a microscopic organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal disease, particularly among children and the elderly. The Setton Pistachio plant temporarily shut down in late March and subsequently recalled more than 2 million pounds of nuts. State and federal inspectors said at the time that they had found the Salmonella bacteria in "critical areas" of the processing facility.

Located 10 miles south of Porterville, the Setton facility is described by company officials as the second-largest pistachio processor in the United States. The facility ships nuts used nationwide in everything from ice cream to snack food.

The FDA's inspection report is partially redacted, to protect confidential business information. The report also specifies that the findings "do not represent a final agency determination regarding ... compliance."

Between October 2008 and March 2009, the report noted that "there were at least eight reported Salmonella-positive test results" coming out of the Terra Bella plant. When the firm learned of the private laboratory test results, inspectors said, there were no "procedures in place" to respond appropriately.

Prior to January, inspectors added, the Terra Bella plant did not monitor roasting temperatures, roasting times or the depth of pistachios placed on the roasting conveyor belts. Inspectors checked records for 14 lots of roasted pistachios. In a potentially dangerous step, ten of these lots had raw pistachios packed on the same packaging equipment prior to the roasted pistachios being run.

"We're still not at the point to determine if or when regulatory actions may be taken against the company," Kwisnek said.