Setton Pistachio, the California pistachio packer and roaster, mentions on its Web site that it is affiliated with a Long Island, New York-based organization named Setton International. The precise affiliation is unclear, presumably separate corporations under common ownership. In any case, when Georgia Nut Company found salmonella on pistachios from Setton Pistachio that were dedicated for trail mix to be sold by Kraft, many looked to Setton International to get a sense of the rigor with which the people behind the name approached food safety.
When it was determined that the New York affiliate had recently failed an inspection, some saw that as confirmation the California company was doing something wrong. We wanted to better understand this New York State inspection and asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Division of Food Safety and Inspection
New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets
Albany, New York.
Q: Could you provide a copy of the full New York State inspection report conducted this March at Setton International Foods and help put into perspective the significance of the findings?
A: Here is a copy of the report.
In New York, our inspection reports are separated into two sections: critical deficiencies — these are violations that could pose an immediate health threat. Then there are also general deficiencies — these are found during inspections and are considered more housekeeping items, but won’t pose an immediate health risk.
Q: How did Setton International fair in these two sections? Did the inspection team find significant violations that could pose an immediate health threat?
A: We did find a critical deficiency, just one. But even one causes them to fail the inspection. We found two live cockroaches. One was in the employee break room and one was in a storage room where food is kept.
Q: What is the company’s inspection history? Was this finding of one critical deficiency an anomaly or has the company failed New York State inspections in the past? How often do you inspect this facility? And was this inspection in March routine or initiated based on separate investigations regarding salmonella contamination going on at its sister company, Setton Pistachio in Terra Bella, California?
A: This was a routine inspection. We try to do them once a year. This is not required, but for the most part we do them annually. Setton International Foods has passed every inspection since 2000. What happens when we find a critical deficiency in a store or foodservice facility, we won’t leave or let the company continue to operate until the problem is fixed.
Q: What steps has Setton International needed to take to satisfy New York State that the critical deficiency, in this case discovery of two live cockroaches, has been eliminated and there is no longer any immediate risk posed to human health?
A: The two cockroaches were disposed of and the area was sanitized. We’ll follow up with an unannounced inspection in the near future.
Q: Bob Fauteax, a Setton International spokesperson, said that both New York State inspectors and FDA went back to the plant after it took corrective action and at no time did they mention they had identified any insect or rodent activity.
A: We did go back into the plant on April 1, after the Kraft recall announcement was made, and collected eight food samples and nine environmental samples to be tested at our lab in Albany for salmonella. Those results we expect this week. While we were there, we were not conducting an official inspection. The New York State inspectors did say they saw considerable improvements since they were there in March, but we will follow up with an official inspection there in the very near future. That would be considered a re-inspection.
Q: Discovery of two cockroaches in an employee break room and food storage area, while decidedly unappealing, doesn’t shock me. I lived in New York City for years, and even in the wealthiest, high-end areas of Manhattan, whether in fancy apartment buildings, gourmet food establishments or somewhere close by, you’d see an occasional cockroach.
A: I did find it almost humorous that a woman who writes for New York Newsday was “outraged” that there were two cockroaches there. The moral of the story is we do take protection of public health very seriously. We did find two large cockroaches there and cockroaches can spread bacteria, so it was incumbent upon us to take action. But it’s important to understand that this establishment has a very good track record.
Q: What about the other general deficiencies? How common is it find these types of problems in a manufacturing facility such as this? Could you provide some context?
A: One of the general deficiencies we found was old rodent droppings in a warehouse. The reason why that is considered a general deficiency is twofold: first, the droppings were old, if they were fresh that would have been different. And second, they were in a warehouse, not a processing plant. Therefore, this is not considered a critical deficiency and we won’t fail an establishment for that. It won’t pose a public health risk because those droppings were out in a warehouse, but we still want it corrected.
In the report, there are numerous deficiencies, and if Setton International corrected them all, it would be perfect. I don’t know if we’ve every seen an establishment that’s perfect. Our goal is to help our companies be in compliance. So therefore, we are very diligent on these inspections to point out every detail that could be improved in an establishment. We are very particular.
Q: It doesn’t sound like this inspection would have seen the light of day in the media if not for the Setton Pistachio investigation. What is your assessment?
A: This would have never gotten press attention if it wasn’t for the issue of contaminated pistachios. Honestly, the reason why this inspection even came up was because a California reporter noticed on Setton Pistachio’s Website it had [a sister company] in New York and called me to get the latest inspection report. From there it bloomed, and the whole thing became sensationalized with confusing reports.
From a safety standpoint, we see that Setton International took a proactive stance. When we were there on Wednesday, April 1, they said they’d segregated all products that contained pistachios and were voluntarily holding them back from distribution until they knew more information, and then issued their recall on April 3.
In the aftermath of the poor inspection reports received by The Peanut Corporation Of America, The New York Times ran a funny Op-ed detailing all the animal parts and other unappetizing items that are completely permissible in food.
The finding of two live cockroaches is undesirable, but not something we can get ourselves worked up about. There are so many vagaries in the way these inspections are conducted. Some inspectors are tough, some are lax, some want pay-offs.
We just don’t see anything meaningful in this report. Many thanks to Jessica Chittenden of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets for walking us through this matter.