April 3, 2009

New York Nut Plant Under Investigation For Massive Pistachio Recall

A California nut processor and its sister plant in New York are being investigated in a nationwide salmonella scare over pistachio nuts, where last month inspectors found cockroaches and rodent droppings, The Associated Press reported.

The Commack-based Setton International Foods Inc., which shares key staff and packages food with a plant in central California that earlier this week recalled 2 million pounds of nuts over fears of possible salmonella contamination, is currently under investigation by the Food and Drug Administration.

The California plant supplies all pistachios used in the Long Island processing facility, which makes chocolate- and yogurt-covered nuts and dried fruit, according to spokesman for both companies.

Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc. is the nation's second-largest pistachio processor.

Agricultural authorities in New York found over 20 dead cockroaches, rodent droppings and one live cockroach on an ingredient rolling rack inside the Commack plant last month and the plant subsequently failed its state health inspection.

The plant is now "spotless" and the problems are "completely unrelated" to the recall over salmonella concerns and were fixed immediately, production Manager Lee Cohen said on Thursday.

He said the facility even plans to recall some of its nuts and trail mix voluntarily in the coming weeks.

Cohen told The Associated Press: "Our facility in New York is beautiful and clean. You can eat off the ground it is so spotless. We took actions immediately to respond once we heard there was a problem, and have been responsible from the beginning."

Jessica Chittenden, a spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, said state inspectors on Wednesday went back for a visit to swab the plant and take food samples to be tested for salmonella and other pathogens as part of the pistachio recall and added the test results are still pending.

Chittenden said that currently nothing is moving out of that plant and they're holding all products with pistachios in them.

"When we were in there yesterday to collect samples, they were cooperative, and we observed that they are working on the issues that we had outlined in our last inspection," she added.

Federal inspectors have also visited the plant this week and the FDA said the agency was "investigating all aspects of the company's operations" but could not discuss the details of the investigation.

FDA spokesman Mike Herndon said Joshua Setton is the CEO of both companies and they label foods with both plants' names.

A company consultant told the AP during a tour of the factory on Thursday that pistachios are being kept separate from Setton's other products until the FDA advises the firm how to proceed.

However, there were no exposed food products in the room where mouse droppings were found last month, according to William Schwemer, a retired FDA investigator hired as a consultant for the investigation.

No confirmed reports of illness have been linked to the recalled nuts, but federal health officials warned people this week to avoid eating all pistachios and products containing them while the government determines what foods could be tainted.

And the number of recalled products continues to grow as products such as nut bars, ice cream and cake mixes remain in limbo on grocery shelves.

Chittenden said Setton International Foods has not yet issued its own recall.

Cohen suspected that salmonella-tainted raw nuts may have contaminated roasted pistachios at the facility, but California health inspectors found no violations that would pose a health threat during their last visit to the Terra Bella plant.

A California Department of Public Health inspector made note of minor violations in April 2008, including insulation hanging over some equipment and packaging equipment that was temporarily taped up for repair.

However, the company corrected both violations a few days later and neither was thought to pose a threat to human health.

The New York plant has passed nine health inspections since 2000 even though it received some violations for unsanitary conditions, according to records obtained by AP.

Five dead cockroaches were found on the floor of the chocolate mixing room in January 2004 and in January of 2007, a state inspector cited three bins of raw almonds in the roasting area that had been left unattended and uncovered while they were not in use.

Another inspector spotted something similar last month when two bins of raw cashews were left out and uncovered in the roasting area.

"Critical deficiencies" - including the detection of one live cockroach on an ingredient rolling rack in the chocolate tank were listed as the reasons the company failed its March inspection.

Chittenden said the plant would receive a second, unannounced inspection in addition to Wednesday's visit.


On The Net:

Setton International Foods Inc.