Sometimes short-and-sweet can be very revealing. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out what role the State of California is playing in regard to the investigation of Setton Pistachio:
California Department of Public Health
Q: When I called the California Department of Agriculture, a spokesperson said FDA and California Department of Health have jurisdiction on this investigation but the California Department of Agriculture does not. Is the state government conducting an investigation of the farms that supplied the raw product to Setton Pistachio?
A: Concerning farms, one can always assume there will be salmonella in the environment. Pistachios are not eaten raw. They are to be roasted and prepared for consumption. So when Setton is selling the raw nuts in the shell, it is selling them to someone who is then going to roast them and put them into products for consumption. That roasting process gets rid of the salmonella that could be occurring. This is why farms are not being investigated.
The problem at Setton that has been brought out by FDA is the possible comingling of raw and finished product resulting in contamination. That’s why FDA is not going back to the farms. That’s why the recall does not include Setton’s raw in-shell products that are being shipped for further roasting.
Q: FDA says it has found salmonella in critical areas at the Setton facilities. Has the California Department of Public Health done its own tests? If so, what are the results?
A: Laboratory analysis has been partially completed by FDA laboratories and salmonella has been positively identified in the environmental samples and the finished product samples, which we collected from Setton in its facilities. More detailed analysis for genetic identification is pending.
We thank Ralph Montano and the California Department of Public Health for working to keep the industry and the public informed about the status of the investigation. This brief interview brings up three very important points:
1) Pathogens are expected in fields and, with pistachios, roasting is expected to kill them. Unlike in the spinach outbreak, where an enormous investigation was conducted in an attempt to ascertain how the pathogen — in that case E. coli 0157:H7 — got in the field, in this case the State isn’t even bothering to attempt to find that out because it doesn’t matter.
2) This means that the finding of salmonella in the plant is of no consequence. It is expected that there will be salmonella on the raw nuts and, as such, in a factory having raw nuts.
3) Genetic identification has not, at least as of yet, tied the salmonella found in the plant to the salmonella supposedly found in the pistachios at Georgia Nut Company. This answers the question we asked here, which was why the FDA was leaking information to favored reporters rather than holding conference calls and issuing press releases.
Now we know the answer: FDA played the AP like a flute getting them to report “news” that Salmonella was found in the plant when that news is irrelevant. Salmonella is expected to be found in every plant handling raw pistachios, and no genetic identification has been made that the salmonella found in the plant is connected to the salmonella alleged to have been on pistachios at Georgia Nut Company.
One broader question: Does the acceptance of pathogens in raw products that will be further processed with a “kill step” increase their prevalence in the environment and make it more likely that products sold to be eaten raw — like leafy greens — will become contaminated?