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SPECIAL EDITION — PISTACHIO RECALL HAS MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS

Producer Contamination
Of Pistachios Is Rather Odd

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 3, 2009

The decision to close an industry is a serious one. We wanted to learn as much as we could about the pistachio situation and so asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more.

People were pretty closed-mouthed, but Mira was able to clarify some important points:

Richard Matoian
Executive Director
Western Pistachio Association
Fresno, California

Q: You say there are no current indications that pistachios processed outside of the Setton Pistachio facility are affected by this recall. How do you know this? Are you confident the problem is linked only to Setton Pistachio?

A: We’re going by what information was released by FDA, and from the press briefing. Government testing is being conducted right now from samples taken at the Setton facilities. Until we know those results, then and only then is there a confirmation to the source.

Q: What do you mean when you say, “…as a further precautionary measure, growers and processors are committed to continuing testing of pistachio shipments going forward” — as you mentioned in your statement. Are there additional food safety measures being done that are different than what was done before?

A: We do have good agricultural and manufacturing practices on the grower and processor side, adopted 15 years ago. On top of that, each and every processor is going through individual facility testing. We want to be doubly sure facilities are clean and safe, so they’re going through and doing additional testing. The last thing anything would want is to determine that the problem is larger.

Q: Are all pistachios roasted, providing a kill step?

A: For pistachios, even raw ones, they do go through a food safety process when brought in from the field. The outside hull is taken off and they go through a water bath that has chlorine in it. Lastly, a drying process removes moisture out of the nut to make it more shelf stable and also acts as a killing step, and the nuts are heated for four hours or so at 160 to 200 degrees.

Q: Is there any historical precedent for a problem like this to occur?

A: The industry believes this is an isolated incident. We never had salmonella found on pistachios before.

Q: Never?

A: In our industry, we never had a problem with salmonella contamination. Everyone was perplexed when they heard Kraft reported to FDA the finding of salmonella on pistachios.

We appreciate Mr. Matoian’s taking the time to help clarify this issue for the industry. It would be helpful if he could be more definitive about the “kill step” — this is typically expressed as a “log reduction,” which is a 10-fold, or 1 decimal place or 90% reduction in a pathogen. Here is an FDA log-reduction chart:

Log Reduction Chart

Log Reduction

% Reduction of Bacteria

1

90

2

99

3

99.9

4

99.99

5

99.999

And FDA gives this simple example:

Two Practical Ways of Looking at 5-Log Reduction:

Reduction of 100,000 bad bugs in one contaminated serving to 1 bad bug in a serving.

Reduction of 100,000 contaminated servings to 1 contaminated serving.

All associations or organizations that claim they have some sort of “kill step” need to express the efficacy of such steps in this sort of language if they are to be persuasive to the media and thus the public. Some food safety experts have told us you need heat of at least 300 degrees F. to kill Salmonella.

Still, we have a product not known to harbor salmonella and that has some sort of kill step. To leap to the conclusion from an isolated finding on pistachios that have been sitting in a customer’s facility for months that this establishes even a prima facie case for producer-contamination is rather odd.

Once again, thanks to Richard Matoian and the Western Pistachio Association for helping to explain the intricate world of pistachios to the broader industry.

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