Salmonella risk in flavoring may drive host of food recalls

Mar 4, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – Potentially thousands of food products are at risk of being recalled because they contain an ingredient that may have been contaminated with a strain of Salmonella, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said today.

In a press briefing this afternoon and in documents posted online, representatives of the FDA and other federal health agencies said that a batch of hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) made by Basic Food Flavors of Las Vegas was found by a purchaser to be contaminated, and the purchaser alerted the FDA. The FDA inspected the Basic Food Flavors plant and found Salmonella Tennessee on processing equipment, and the company stopped production and recalled all the HVP it has made since Sept. 17, 2009.

No illnesses have been linked to the product, officials said, but they added that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is scrutinizing reports coming into its existing Salmonella surveillance system for any signs of increased illness. The Tennessee strain, like other strains of Salmonella, can cause fever, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhea, and can be fatal in the young, elderly, and frail or immune-compromised.

The officials were unable to say today how many products could be caught up in the recall, though Virginia Scott of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said during the briefing that it is "likely to be in the thousands of products."

HVP is a flavor booster made from legumes that is used in a manner similar to monosodium glutamate. So far, recalls have been announced for 56 separate products, according to a database posted today by the FDA, including potato chips, dips, salad dressing, sauce mixes, soup bases, and 16 flavors of prepackaged meals.

But that number is expected to grow enormously over the next few weeks as details of the recall filter through the complex channels of industrial food production. The 6-page list of recalled lots of HVP posted on Basic Food Flavors' website contains hundreds of items.

"It's such a ubiquitous product," food-safety attorney Bill Marler said in an interview. "It underscores how a potentially contaminated ingredient can have such an enormous impact upstream and downstream, on re-manufacturers and retailers." Marler's law firm, Marler Clark LLP, has been contacted by consumers complaining of diarrheal illness as recall notices trickled out over the past few days, and the firm plans to have tests conducted on products that remained on people's shelves, he said.

Federal officials were careful to say today that they believe the risk from the potentially contaminated HVP to be low, both because no illnesses have been reported and because, as a flavoring, HVP would have been added to any product in small amounts. In addition, they said, many of the products to which the HVP was added may have undergone a "kill step" as they continued to be processed, usually heating to the point that any bacteria would be killed.

While the distribution of the Salmonella strain reveals the complexity of food processing, its discovery suggests the additional aggressiveness brought to the FDA by the Obama administration. The initial report of contamination was made to the FDA, by a Basic Food Flavors' client they would not identify, via the Reportable Food Registry, an electronic portal for businesses and consumers that was created by the FDA last November.

And the officials who spoke today used this contamination to press the case for the Food Safety Modernization Act, legislation now in Congress that is backed by the administration and would give the FDA more power to prevent contamination and force what are now purely voluntary recalls. It "clearly underscores the need for new food safety legislation to equip FDA with the tools we need to prevent contamination," Dr. Jeff Farrar, the FDA's associate commissioner for food protection, said during the briefing.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit organization that backs the bill, said today: "Most Americans would be stunned to learn that FDA doesn't even have the authority to make recalls like these mandatory," adding the contamination is "yet more proof that the Food and Drug Administration needs more authority, more inspectors, and more resources to ensure that our food supply is safe."

See also:

Mar 4 FDA announcement

Mar 4 FDA Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein Containing Products Recall List

Basic Food Flavors recall list

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