The salmonella scare that prompted a blanket federal warning against eating pistachios may have erupted because contaminated raw nuts got mixed with roasted nuts during processing, the company at the center of the nationwide recall said Tuesday.
Lee Cohen, the production manager for Setton International Foods Inc., said the company does not believe pistachios were contaminated by a human or animal source in its plant. He said the company suspects that roasted pistachios sold to Kraft Foods Inc. may have become mixed at Setton's plant with raw nuts that could have contained traces of the bacteria.
The pistachios were processed at central California-based Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., which is in the corporate family of Commack, N.Y.-based Setton International Foods Inc. Cohen is in California to help as the Food and Drug Administration inspects the nation's second-largest pistachio processor.
Kraft spokeswoman Laurie Guzzinati said her company's auditors "observed employee practices where raw and roasted nuts were not adequately segregated and that could explain the sporadic contamination."
She said she didn't know what they saw specifically, but "that's how the auditors shared the information with us."
The FDA said Setton Pistachio, the nation's second-largest pistachio processor, was voluntarily recalling more than 2 million pounds of its roasted nuts shipped since last fall. Some of those nuts were shipped to Norway and Mexico, officials said Tuesday.
"We know that the farm in California shipped its products to 36 wholesalers," said Dr. David Acheson, assistant commissioner for food safety. "But what we don't know yet is what those wholesalers did with them — whether they were repackaged for consumers, or whether they were sold to manufacturers making ice cream or cookies or candies."
Two people called the FDA complaining of gastrointestinal illness that could be associated with the nuts, but the link hasn't been confirmed, Acheson said. Still, Setton decided to shut down the Terra Bella plant late last week, officials said.
The FDA learned about the problem March 24, when Kraft Foods Inc. notified the agency that routine product testing had detected salmonella in roasted pistachios. Kraft and the Georgia Nut Co. recalled their Back to Nature Nantucket Blend trail mix the next day.
Kraft expanded its recall this Tuesday to include any Planters and Back to Nature products that contain pistachios supplied by Setton Pistachio since Sept. 1.
"Safety is our top priority," Guzzinati said. "We're proud of our quality and the procedures we have in place. This is always a place we look for continuous improvement. In this instance when it was brought to our attention we were able to act and respond."
The recalled nuts are a small fraction of the 55 million pounds of pistachios that the company's plant processed last year and an even smaller portion of the 278 million pounds produced in the state in the 2008 season, according to the Fresno-based Administrative Committee for Pistachios.
California is the second-largest producer of pistachios in the world.
The latest recall is not related to the nationwide recall of peanuts.