NY plant tied to recalled pistachios shuts down

April 2, 2009 2:48:47 PM PDT
Officials at a New York plant tied to a nationwide pistachio recall caused by salmonella fears said Thursday they have stopped shipping pistachios and addressed health and safety problems found inside the plant.

The Food and Drug Administration is investigating Commack, N.Y.-based Setton International Foods Inc. as part of the salmonella scare involving its sister company, Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc.

The central California plant earlier this week recalled 2 million pounds of nuts over fears of possible salmonella contamination.

Last month, New York agricultural authorities discovered nearly two dozen dead cockroaches, rodent droppings and one live cockroach on an ingredient rolling rack inside the Commack plant, which failed its state health inspection.

Lee Cohen, the production manager for Setton International Foods, said Thursday that those conditions weren't related to the recall and the plant is now spotless.

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

"Right now nothing is moving out of that plant. They're holding all products with pistachios in them," Chittenden said. "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."

Chittenden said she was told federal inspectors also had visited the plant this week. The FDA said the agency was "investigating all aspects of the company's operations" but could not disclose details.

The two companies share a CEO, Joshua Setton, and label packages of bulk and retail foods with both plants' names, FDA spokesman Mike Herndon said.

A spokesman for both companies said Wednesday the California plant supplies all pistachios used in the 50,000-square foot Long Island processing facility, which makes chocolate- and yogurt-coated nuts and dried fruit.

A security guard there turned away reporters seeking comment Thursday and directed them to a spokeswoman who did not respond to calls seeking comment.

So far, there have been no confirmed reports of illness linked to the recalled nuts.

Still, federal health officials warned people this week to avoid eating all pistachios and products containing them while they determine what foods could be tainted. In the meantime, a range of products from nut bars to ice cream and cake mixes remain in limbo on grocery shelves, and the number of recalled product continues to grow.

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

Kraft Foods Inc. first alerted the FDA to the contamination after its manufacturer in Skokie, Ill., turned up salmonella in a routine test of roasted pistachios that workers planned to add to trail mix.

Private auditors hired by Kraft found problems they think caused the contamination when they traveled to Setton Pistachio's processing facility in Terra Bella, a remote town in California's farm belt. Cohen said Tuesday he suspected that roasted pistachios at the facility could have been contaminated by salmonella-tainted raw nuts they were processed with.

The last time California health inspectors visited the Terra Bella plant, they found no violations that would pose a health threat.

In April 2008, a California Department of Public Health inspector made note of minor violations, such as insulation hanging over some equipment and packaging equipment that was temporarily repaired using tape.

Neither violation is thought to pose a threat to human health, and the company corrected both a few days later.

Records obtained by The Associated Press show that the New York plant has passed nine health inspections since 2000.

In June 2006, however, the company was fined $300 for using undeclared sulfites in golden raisins, and in March 2004, received a warning letter for "undeclared colors of dried papaya," Crittenden said.

The company failed its March inspection because of "critical deficiencies" - including the detection of one live cockroach on an ingredient rolling rack in the chocolate tank - and was set to get a second, unannounced inspection in addition to Wednesday's visit, she said.

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