Salmonella found in food additive sparks recall

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The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday announced a potentially massive recall of salad dressing, chip dip, soup mixes and other foods made with a commonly used food additive that may be contaminated with salmonella.

Among the products being taken off store shelves is a potato salad from an Oregon supplier, according to the Oregonian newspaper, that makes products distributed under the Safeway and Wal-Mart brands. Safeway Inc. said Thursday that it was removing its Red Potato Salad with Dill products from its Vons and Pavilions stores, as well as its self-named markets.

The additive, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, is used in thousands of foods but has not been linked to any illness and it currently presents a low risk to consumers, according to FDA officials.

But the agency isn’t taking chances. It has asked food producers to check inventories for items that used the recalled lots of the protein.

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Only a few specific brands or products have been recalled since contamination was discovered last month, but “we expect this to get larger over the next several days to several weeks,” said Jeff Farrar, FDA associate commissioner of food safety.

The vegetable protein was made at a plant operated by Basic Food Flavors Inc. of Las Vegas and discovered when a company customer tested a batch of the additive and reported finding salmonella.

FDA inspectors subsequently discovered salmonella bacteria on plant equipment. Basic Food announced a recall of all paste and powdered versions of the protein manufactured since Sept. 17, 2009.

Company President Kanu Patel did not return a call seeking comment.

The FDA identified the salmonella’s genetic fingerprint, enabling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to confirm this strain has not caused illnesses.

Salmonella causes infections marked by diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal pain. Healthy people generally recover without treatment, but salmonella can kill the very young, the elderly and people with weak immune systems.

Underscoring the potential seriousness of the outbreak, both FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and the agency’s No. 2 official, Joshua Sharfstein, spoke during a conference call with reporters.

Sharfstein said the FDA reacted quickly, but he and Hamburg said the incident highlighted the agency’s need for more tools to prevent outbreaks instead of reacting to them.

Legislation that would give the FDA the power to order recalls on its own authority, instead of pressuring firms to do so, has been stalled in the Senate since last fall.

Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter contributed to this report.