Research continues on heat levels required to reduce pathogens
By CECILIA PARSONS
the pistachio nut industry has made some major changes in handling and sanitation practices, in the wake of last spring's recall due to salmonella contamination.
With the start of the 2009 harvest, many of those changes are in place at Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, the state's second largest pistachio handler and site of an industry-first recall of two million pounds of nuts.
The recall came when Kraft Foods announced salmonella contamination in shelled pistachio nuts from the Terra Bella plant. A federal Food and Drug Administration investigation followed and the industry moved swiftly to assure customers that pistachios from numerous other handlers and processors were safe to eat. There were no illnesses reported from eating Setton-processed pistachios.
However, the industry took an inward look at field and processing practices and decided to ramp up vigilance and minimize risk of contamination.
Richard Matoian, executive director of Western Pistachio Association said the primary focus was segregation or raw and processed handling lines, traceback and validation that processing was reaching the target level for pathogen kill.
Long term, he said, the industry would be looking at risks associated with production areas including their proximity to livestock.
Bob Klein, manager of California Pistachio Research Board, estimated that collectively pistachio processors spent $30 million in revamping handling systems to address food safety.
Those changes include construction to separate raw and processed nuts, directing airflow toward potential contamination and heightened sanitation.
"I know one processor who has a crew of five who do nothing but sanitize in the plant," said Klein.
The industry is also looking at some changes in processing that will also reduce risks of salmonella contamination.
Klein said research is ongoing on heat levels and length required to reduce pathogens to levels unlikely to cause illness contamination. Processors want to validate that the roasting process is sufficient to kill pathogens. The board created a $200,000 Salmonella Research fund for this year and is partnering with the UC-Davis-based Center for Produce Safety.
The California pistachio industry was the first tree nut industry to develop a good agricultural practices manual, but that was before all the food safety risks were known said Setton Pistachio plant manager Lee Cohen.
"We've been shipping since 1976 and never had a problem," said Cohen.
The industry assumed the risks of contamination were low, he added, because unlike almonds, walnuts and pecans, pistachios do not come in contact with the ground when harvested. They also have an outer hull and are dry roasted.
The salmonella contamination and recall last spring convinced Setton that a new attitude was necessary.
"Setton wanted to know the science behind the risk," said Cohen. The company paid for microbiological, epidemiological and chemical engineering studies to find where pathogens might infiltrate and what was necessary to minimize the risks.
Taking the findings, Setton made a number of physical plant upgrades and some operational changes.
Today, the plant has a new wall that separates its raw and roasted products.
Each side has its own dedicated bins, forklifts and other equipment. Airflow patterns were changed to ensure flows from ready to eat production to raw production. Bird netting covers outside bins and unloading areas.
The company also has a third party verification that its roasting process is capable of microbial kill levels the company seeks.
Cecilia Parsons is a staff writer based in Ducor. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.