Making California pistachios safe again

In the spring of 2004, five years before pistachios grown in the San Joaquin Valley became tainted with salmonella, health investigators were hunting for the same deadly bacteria in the same stretch of our state -- this time in the almond orchards.

The microbe hadn’t struck just any almond grower: The outbreak took place at Paramount Farms, the biggest grower of nuts and citrus in the nation, a behemoth operation unmatched in the precision and cleanliness of its fields and processing plants. As dozens of consumers fell ill nationwide, Paramount recalled 13 million pounds of raw almonds that had gone to chains such as Costco and Trader Joe’s.

Much of the almond industry, even before the 2004 outbreak, understood the challenge posed by the miscreants of the microbe world. The co-op Blue Diamond was already heating its almonds at high enough temperatures to kill a wide range of pathogens. In the wake of the outbreak, Paramount Farms decided to follow suit, so that today the bulk of California’s 1-billion-pound-plus almond crop, like milk, is pasteurized.

So how did the pistachio farmers and processors respond to the woes of their almond brethren back in 2004? Some, such as Ali Amin, an Iranian immigrant who has been growing and processing California pistachios for two decades, immediately hired a full-time microbiologist at his Primex plant in Kern County, testing not only the nuts for pathogens but swabbing and cleaning each piece of equipment.

Unfortunately, a handful of other pistachio processors chose to ignore the lessons of the almond contamination. As a state senator who lives in the shadow of their orchards outside Bakersfield, I can still recall their reasoning:

Pistachios, they maintained, are protected by much thicker shells than almonds. They never touch the soil during harvesting. And before reaching the consumer, pistachios are bathed in chlorine and roasted by fire, which is just as effective as pasteurization. If ever a crop were bulletproof, the growers said, it was California pistachios.

This belief, of course, has proved to be folly in the wake of last week’s expanded recall of about 3 million pounds of pistachios processed by Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella. As it turns out, no fruit, vegetable or nut, not even the pistachio, is immune to an ever-scheming bacteria. Setton has learned the hard way that salmonella is a genius of guile. On the wings of a bird’s droppings, it can hide dormant in a processing plant’s air ducts and other crannies. With the right moisture and temperature, it then blooms to lethal life, striking even after the nuts have been washed and roasted.

Such cunning raises the specter that microbes are simply more inventive than we are; that no matter how many new and improved prophylactics we bring to the fight, salmonella and E. coli and listeria and campylobacter will inevitably find a way around our defenses.

As head of the main legislative committee overseeing food and agriculture in California, I am not yet ready to throw up my hands in surrender. With each new outbreak -- almonds in 2004, spinach in 2006, peppers in 2008 -- I have sought to discover the cracks in our food safety and regulatory systems. These cracks, as you might imagine, are considerable.

Setton Pistachio, for instance, was a leader in the nut processing industry, handling up to 20% of California’s annual 300-million-pound pistachio harvest. Yet the company did not make use of a microbiologist; nor did it have a food safety expert to point out that it was using the same assembly line to convey roasted and raw pistachios, a no-no that likely became a point of entry for salmonella.

Pistachio growers and processors now concede that their industry may be expanding too fast. Over the last decade, as more and more cotton fields in the San Joaquin Valley have been yanked out of production, the land devoted to pistachios has jumped fourfold -- to nearly 200,000 acres. This growth clearly has not been matched by industrywide measures to thwart the nastier microbes among us.

My struggle as a lawmaker is to find ways to shore up the system without imposing unnecessary constraints on farmers, who already feel beset by regulations and government paperwork. Our food delivery system, from farmer to processor to grocer, is overall quite safe. But California boasts nine of the nation’s top 10 counties when it comes to farm production. For the safety of the country, we must do more.

After years of deregulation, the ranks of state and federal inspectors are simply too thin for the task at hand. In California, we rely on 35 inspectors to monitor more than 5,500 food processing and food manufacturing plants. This means that an inspector visits a processor such as Setton Pistachio once every 18 months.

Not only is this not frequent enough, but state inspectors never take their own samples and rarely pass judgment on the efficacy of a processor’s food safety plan. More alarming, they never inquire whether recent tests conducted by the processor or one of its buyers show a positive for pathogens. Because a processor isn’t obligated to reveal the results of such in-house testing, we essentially operate with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy in the Golden State. Thus, government and its citizens are kept in the dark, sometimes for many months, about a product being tainted.

To bring some light back in, I have written legislation, SB 173, that will accomplish three things on the ground: First, a processor and/or grower must immediately notify the state of any private testing that reveals a tainted food product. Second, if a processor chooses not to do its own testing, and a recall later takes place, it will face an automatic shutdown for six months and must cover all of the state’s costs related to the outbreak. This should encourage processors not now performing their own testing to do so. Finally, my bill would give California the power of mandatory recall in the event a food processor is dragging its feet. The days of voluntary recalls must come to an end.

To live with the status quo leaves our nation with an unacceptable paradox: the pistachio nut, lauded in marketing campaigns as a healthy snack for the heart, becoming a killer in the gut.

Dean Florez chairs the state Senate Committee on Food and Agriculture.