One of the things that makes following the FDA pronouncements on foodborne pathogens so infuriating is that FDA’s officials tend to say things without clarifying their meaning or significance.
Reporters then report what they are told, and it leaves a kind of innuendo without actually saying anything.
So Jane Zhang over at The Wall Street Journal wrote a short piece titled Officials Find Salmonella at California Pistachio Plant:
Federal health officials now have proof that the California plant at the center of a nationwide pistachio recall was contaminated with salmonella, but they are still trying to figure out if the contaminated nuts caused any outbreaks of human illnesses.
David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration’s associate commissioner for foods, said the agency found the Salmonella Montevideo strain in three samples taken from equipment at the plant of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., based in Terra Bella, Calif. The strain matches the bacteria that Kraft Foods Inc. had found in products supplied to the company by Setton. Kraft reported its findings to the FDA last month….
It is such a short piece yet it is also a kind of puzzle:
First, it says that “…officials now have proof that the California plant at the center of a nationwide pistachio recall was contaminated with salmonella…” Ok, fine but, what, precisely does this prove? Do other pistachio plants not have salmonella? Because this product will go through a kill step, the FDA didn’t even go back to the farms to trace back the salmonella.
FDA simply doesn’t care about this detail. It expects salmonella on the raw product and expects the roasting to kill it. So, very likely, all pistachio plants that handle raw product will have some salmonella.
Second, the piece explains that “David Acheson, the Food and Drug Administration’s associate commissioner for foods, said the agency found the Salmonella Montevideo strain in three samples taken from equipment at the plant of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc…” Yet this just adds to the confusion. So they found one of the four strains that had been identified. Put another way, they have not found three of the four strains that had been initially found.
Besides, finding the ”strain Montevideo” means almost nothing. If they find the “Saintpaul” strain, that doesn’t mean it is connected to last summer’s outbreak.
Third, the article states, “The strain matches the bacteria that Kraft Foods Inc. had found in products supplied to the company by Setton.” This is very vague. Is the FDA saying that there is a PFGE match? Or just that the strains are the same? And if there is a PFGE match, what does that mean the likelihood is of the findings being related? Besides, as we mentioned here, Kraft told us that it didn’t do the initial testing — that was done by Georgia Nut Company. So does it match the test results found at Kraft or at Georgia Nut Company and, when were these tests done?
Sebastian Cianci, FDA spokesperson, has done yeoman’s work in trying to help us clarify these matters. Here is what we have learned:
Q. By matching the strain, does that mean it is a PFGE match, or is it just the same variety of salmonella?
A. It was a PFGE match with two different enzyme cuts (XbaI and BlnI). It means they are identical.
Q. Could you further clarify the timeline of when, where and on what products the four salmonella strains were discovered? Were all four salmonella strains found during the Georgia Nut Company testing of Setton Pistachio’s product in March, or were these four strains discovered during different testing periods?
A. BTN Cashew Almond Pistachio Blend was the product tested positive for Salmonella Montevideo in March by a private lab. The private lab’s isolate was confirmed and PFGE patterned by FDA lab. Among environmental swab samples taken from Setton Farm by FDA investigator during the inspection in March, three were positive for Salmonella Montevideo upon FDA lab analysis
Q: Did the sample that tested positive for Salmonella Montevideo come from Kraft’s testing or did it come from the Georgia Nut company’s testing?
A: Georgia Nut Company had it tested.
[Editor’s note. FDA in its one official media briefing on the recall said Kraft did the testing, and there was no mention of Georgia Nut Company’s involvement. However, Kraft, in an interview that ran in the Pundit on April 3, said Georgia Nut Company discovered the positive, and subsequently informed Kraft, which then alerted the FDA of the problem].
The significance of a genetic match is still a little unclear. Bob Wickert, a molecular microbiologist at the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory, gave a presentation on Pulse Field Gel Electrophoresis (PFGE) and spoke of microbial subtyping this way:
- A match does NOT mean the cases are DEFINITELY related
- A non-match does not mean that the cases are definitely NOT related.
- A match means the cases are MORE LIKELY to have a common source than if they didn’t match
- A non-match means the cases are LESS LIKELY to have a common source than if they did match
That provides some general clarification but not really enough specific information to let us know how much weight to put on this match.
We continue to think that there is little, if any, evidence that the Setton Pistachio plant was worse than the numerous other plants still processing. We find the interview we did with a prominent retailer very telling:
Setton is a good company run by good folks. FDA’s behavior is a travesty. It’s the most offensive investigation. Serious errors are being made. We need to go after this. FDA can’t be allowed to operate this way, destroying good companies, taking down entire industries.
And if the Setton plant was turning out product as good as other plants, what is being accomplished by this massive recall?