Opinion: Pistachio Recall Highlights Food Safety Concerns

The drought in California has been making headlines, and has also been making growers nervous. Recently, following a news story we posted about the formation of a federal drought action team, we heard from Larry Easterling, a grower in the San Joaquin Valley. Easterling expressed his concerns about the amount of water he needs for adequate production, and what he actually expects to be allocated for his farm. Soon after, we contacted Easterling for a follow-up.

Then, all of a sudden, the story changed.

You see, Larry is a pistachio grower, one of the biggest in the state, in fact. The day we made our call to Larry was the same day that Setton Pistachio, the nation’s second-largest pistachio processor, announced it was voluntarily recalling more than 2 million pounds of its roasted nuts after positive tests for Salmonella.

Needless to say, Easterling was both nervous and irate. “It feels like the roof fell in on us,” he said. “What’s really blowing us away is that with the peanut recall, they didn’t come out with a blanket statement, ‘Don’t eat peanuts.’” When the peanut recall was ordered, said Easterling, the FDA was much more specific, but in this instance, the entire pistachio industry is being unfairly tarred.

Besides the immediate hit to the industry, which will likely be considerable, Easterling said that FDA’s announcement could have long-lasting repercussions. Approximately 65% of the U.S. crop is exported, and the largest export market is Europe. It’s taken U.S. growers years to develop that market, which could be severely damaged. “Iran (the world’s largest grower, with California #2) is going to get hold of this announcement and talk to European buyers,” he said. “We need to get this resolved really quick.”

Being Proactive

Meanwhile, other growers are no doubt shaking their heads. Up until now, the food safety problems of the past three to four years have been largely confined to the spinach and tomato industries (unfairly, in some cases). Now it’s our turn.

One thing we can say is that the pistachio industry has made some positive moves. The Setton recall was a voluntary move, and the company has made a concerted effort to keep its customers informed with the latest news on the recall. In addition, the CAL-PURE co-op of California pistachio growers and the Western Pistachio Association (WPA) have set up a website, www.pistachiorecall.org, that lists brands that do not contain pistachios from Setton. WPA’s own site (www.westernpistachio.org) has a “voluntary pistachio recall information” page that includes the most recent FDA recall notices, consumer information, and more. It’s quite a contrast from the recent peanut health scare, where some processors acted rather passively.

However, the problem is that consumers are still going to do their own thing. Once they see a report on a recall of anything food-related, their first inclination is to cross that item off their shopping list. Once they do that, it can be a long process getting them back.

On The Table

This pistachio recall has once again brought food safety to the forefront, at least for the tree nut and tree fruit industry. At the same time, over on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are on the hot seat to get comprehensive food safety reform passed this year. With a new administration and Congress, many industry insiders believe it will get done this year. But which of the major proposals will lawmakers go with, and which ones truly make the most sense?

We’re here to help you out with that. Right now there are four major pieces of legislation up for consideration:

• The Safe Food Enforcement, Assessment Standards, and Targeting Act (Safe FEAST Act)

• The FDA Globalization Act of 2009

• The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009

• The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

Quite a few similarities in their names, huh? However, dig a little deeper, and you’ll learn there are major differences among them, particularly when it comes to FDA. Some would give FDA a greater role in recalls and inspections, while others go the opposite direction, splitting FDA and restructuring its power.

Learn for yourself and decide which of these bills best suits you and your industry. The stakes are certainly huge.

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