- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

COMMACK, N.Y. (AP) - The investigation into a nationwide salmonella scare over pistachio nuts has spread from a California nut processor to its sister plant in New York, where inspectors last month found cockroaches and rodent droppings.

The Food and Drug Administration said Thursday it was investigating Commack-based Setton International Foods Inc., which shares key staff and packages food with a plant in central California that earlier this week recalled 2 million pounds of nuts over fears of possible salmonella contamination.

Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc. is the nation’s second-largest pistachio processor. A spokesman for both companies said the California plant supplies all pistachios used in the Long Island processing facility, which makes chocolate- and yogurt-covered nuts and dried fruit.

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. It failed its state health inspection.

Production Manager Lee Cohen said Thursday the plant is now spotless and the problems _ completely unrelated to the recall over salmonella concerns _ were fixed immediately. The facility, which is among the 36 wholesalers that got nuts from the California operation, plans to recall some of its nuts and trail mix voluntarily in the coming weeks, he said.

“Our facility in New York is beautiful and clean. You can eat off the ground it is so spotless,” Cohen said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We took actions immediately to respond once we heard there was a problem, and have been responsible from the beginning.”

State inspectors went back for a 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 foods with both plants’ names, FDA spokesman Mike Herndon said.

During a tour of the sprawling factory Thursday, a company consultant told the AP that pistachios are being kept separate from Setton’s other products until the FDA advises the firm how to proceed.

Thousands of boxes of pistachios were wrapped in plastic, placed on pallets, stacked to the ceiling and cordoned off from the rest of the warehouse with yellow police tape. Roasting machines and polished stainless steel equipment appeared clean, and visitors were required to wear hair nets.

William Schwemer, a retired FDA investigator hired as a consultant, said there were no exposed food products in the room where mouse droppings were found last month.

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 the government determines 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 products 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, despite receiving some violations for unsanitary conditions. Chittenden called that an “excellent history.”

In January 2004, five dead cockroaches were found on the floor of the chocolate mixing room. In January 2007, a state inspector noted that three bins of raw almonds in the roasting area had been left unattended and uncovered while they were not in use. Last month, an inspector spotted something similar: two bins of raw cashews were left out and uncovered in the roasting area.

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.

The plant was set to get a second, unannounced inspection in addition to Wednesday’s visit, Chittenden said.


Associated Press Writer Garance Burke reported from Fresno, Calif. Brett J. Blackledge in Washington contributed to this report.

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