Flavoring Ingredient Recalled; Risk of Illness Seen as Low

Flavoring Ingredient Recalled; Risk of Illness Seen as Low

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Thousands of processed foods — from soups to hot dogs to dips — contain a flavoring ingredient contaminated with salmonella, but government food safety officials say most affected products are safe because cooking, either before or after sale, eliminates the risk.

Basic Food Flavors of Las Vegas, sold the ingredient, called hydrolyzed vegetable protein, to food manufacturers across the country. But one of the company’s customers found salmonella in supplies sent from Basic Food Flavors, and the customer alerted the Food and Drug Administration, which in February inspected the Las Vegas plant.

The inspection uncovered salmonella in the company’s processing equipment, leading Basic Flavors to recall all its hydrolyzed vegetable protein made since Sept. 17, 2009. As a result, food manufacturers have recalled more than three dozen products but more such recalls are likely.

Among the foods being recalled are Castella Imports’ Castella Chicken Soup Base, Marzetti’s Southwest Ranch Veggie Dip and Follow Your Heart’s Curried Tofu.

Health officials have yet to find anyone who has been sickened by the contamination.

Dr. Jeff Farrar, the food agency’s associate commissioner for food safety, said, “We believe the risk represented by this recall is very low to consumers.”

A spokesman for Basic Food Flavors did not return a call seeking comment.

The recall demonstrates the risks of the nation’s increasingly industrialized food supply chain. Specialized food plants may supply scores of customers involved in the production of thousands of products. Contamination at any one of these specialized plants can reverberate through nearly every aisle in the grocery store.

“Many of these recent recalls,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “show that an error in a single ingredient plant — whether peanut butter, spices or flavor enhancers — can cause repercussions throughout the food chain.”

The Basic Food Flavors recall also demonstrates the increasing sophistication of the nation’s food safety alert system, although officials and advocates said that more improvements were needed. The food agency learned of the Las Vegas contamination because of legislation passed by Congress in 2007 that required food manufacturers to alert the government when they find salmonella or other contaminants in ingredients from suppliers.

But the mandate took years to go into effect because the F.D.A. could not get its database off the ground. The delay may have contributed to more than 500 illnesses and at least eight deaths last year that were linked to contaminated peanut butter from the Peanut Corporation of America. At least one company that interacted with Peanut Corporation was aware of sanitation problems at the company’s plants but never alerted federal officials.

In September, the agency activated its contamination database. As a result, when one of Basic Food Flavors’ customers found salmonella in a batch of hydrolyzed vegetable protein, it was required to alert the F.D.A.

The alert presented the agency with a new problem: what to do with a contaminated flavoring ingredient. Because this ingredient is often added before products are cooked, there is a good chance that the vast majority of products containing it are safe.

But nobody really knows, and because the agency has been getting contamination alerts from manufacturers for only a few months, it has yet to work out precisely how to handle them. Officials said that as they examine the issue, there may be more recalls. Officials are particularly concerned about products that were never cooked after the raw flavoring was added.

“We are taking a risk-based approach to this and making sure the products out there for consumers are safe,” said Jenny Scott, a senior F.D.A. food adviser.

Even tiny amounts of salmonella can lead to grave illnesses in vulnerable people like the elderly or children.

Agency officials emphasized that the recalls also demonstrated the need for food-safety legislation that has been stalled in the Senate for months because of the health care debate. The legislation would require food manufacturers to create precise plans for ensuring the safety of their products, and it would give the agency more money and power to force potentially dangerous foods off the market.

The proposed legislation, which has already passed the House, would help ensure that contamination episodes never take place at all, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the F.D.A. commissioner, said in a conference call with reporters.

Erik D. Olson, director of food and consumer product safety at the Pew Health Group, said it was telling that the food agency could give consumers so little information about just how widely the recall would eventually reach.

“This is just another indication of how broken down this system is,” Mr. Olson said.

Source: New York Times

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