Diary of a Product Recall: How Setton Pistachio Survived A Food Company's Worst Nightmare

Diane Toops speaks with Mia Cohen, of Setton Pistachio, who sets the record straight and shares the company's product recall experience.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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Mia Cohen, COO of Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella Inc., Terra Bella, Calif., sets the record straight and shares the company’s recall experience with Food Processing readers in the hope that other companies can avoid such an occurrence.  Responsible for the planning and execution of strategic corporate initiatives, her role entails overseeing the development, implementation, operation and improvement of the company’s initiatives, which focus on providing quality food products to its customers/consumers. 

In March, Setton Pistachio announced a voluntary nationwide recall of pistachio products, many used in finished food products, because Salmonella was found in a small number of bulk cases of roasted shelled pistachios. On April 6, Setton expanded its voluntary nationwide recall to include all roasted shelled pistachios and roasted in-shell pistachios from the 2008 crop (and a small amount from the 2007 crop that was packaged alongside the 2008 crop) due to potential contamination. The company also recalled raw shelled pistachios from the 2008 crop (and a small amount from the 2007 crop that was packaged alongside the 2008 crop) that were not subsequently roasted prior to retail sale and sold from Sept. 1, 2008 through March 25, 2009. 

Meanwhile, Setton voluntarily ceased production and shipments of all roasted products at its Terra Bella plant. Working closely with local, state and federal regulators on the recall, the company undertook significant changes to ensure safe production, including segregating raw and ready-to-eat products and implementing additional screening of raw and final products.

Fortunately, there have been no confirmed cases of Salmonellosis in connection with these products, and the recall was conducted strictly as a precaution in order to safeguard the health and safety of its consumers.

On June 1, the Terra Bella facility reopened with many changes to its plant and operations, the recall is complete, and Cohen says she is very pleased that the Terra Bella plant is again processing its delicious and high-quality roasted pistachio products. “Protocols are in place to ensure we provide our customers with the highest quality pistachios,” she adds.

FP: Tell us a bit about Setton’s history.
 
MIA COHEN: Over 40 years ago, my father and uncle started our family business, and they were always passionate about producing great tasting, quality foods. Twenty-three years ago, the pistachio industry was relatively new to California. We believed pistachios from America had a place at the American table, and we passionately wanted to be a part of that growing business. As a result, we built our first pistachio processing facility 23 years ago, and since that time, we’ve made improvements, investments and expanded. We bought the land itself, so we are also growers of pistachios in San Joaquin Valley. Today, although it’s a large industry, it feels like a family industry. We all know each other very well. Producing pistachios is our family’s passion, and we take that very seriously.

Other companies should take into consideration the possibility of pathogen contamination, even if their company has never seen a problem before. Pathogen control is where you start. Communication is key – immediately begin communicating with customers assuring them you are on top of the situation.

– Mia Cohen

FP: What happened just prior to the recall?

MIA COHEN: Food safety is an issue we take very seriously, which is why we acted swiftly when we first learned of the possibility of salmonella contamination. Being the second largest pistachio company, we were well positioned to take immediate action to share the information that would benefit everyone. Immediately after receiving the first positive result in October 2008, our company hired the American Council for Food Safety and Quality – also known as DFA of California - to review our operation. DFA conducted hundreds of tests from October to February and could find no evidence of Salmonella in our facility.

FP: Did you have an existing response plan in the event of a recall?

MIA COHEN: Yes, we had a recall plan. Like other food companies, we conducted mock recalls regularly, and the benefit of that experience helped us respond quickly and communicate with our customers and regulatory bodies when we were confronted with the real thing. We took immediate responsibility. We did not know that contamination could occur on raw pistachios. We are very thankful that no illnesses were conclusively linked to the recalled products. Nevertheless, we took aggressive steps to assure the safety and wholesomeness of our pistachios. The subsequent steps we’ve taken will strengthen the industry for years to come.

FP: What happened next?

MIA COHEN: We are a family company, and built our business on the tradition of excellence. Setton has always focused on producing top-quality, wholesome, safe products for our customers and consumers. We took the recall very seriously, and immediately took aggressive action without much information, focusing on all the work we had done in the past in regard to food safety. You many not know this, but prior to this recall, the prevailing view was that pathogens were not present in raw pistachios. This experience taught us that pathogens can be present, and we are re-evaluating our safety programs constantly to ensure we provide our customers with the highest quality products.

FP: What measures have you taken to ensure your products are safe?

MIA COHEN: We brought in IEH Labs, food safety experts, to guide us in implementing changes. We worked with food safety expert Mansour Samadpour, president and CEO of IEH Labs, on our pathogen control and HACCP plan to ensure the best safeguards going forward. Dr. Samadpour is also working with the industry to implement best practices. We also shared what we learned with the industry and other pistachio processors, because we believe food safety should not be a competitive advantage. We want to ensure the industry produces safe, wholesome products, and there has been a very positive response to this sharing.

FP: Could you tell us about the new pathogen measures you put in place?

MIA COHEN: Mansour did a total reassessment. The first thing he did was to change the assumption. The basis for the HACCP program is that pathogens in raw nuts is a hazard and is reasonably likely to occur. Because of that we initiated several measures simultaneously. One was total segregation of raw and finished pistachios. It doesn’t make sense to have an intervention and then have common contact areas. Assuming there are low levels of contamination in raw materials, there are several things we have done. We have a comprehensive high-resolution raw materials program.  Any raw material pistachio bag or bin goes through intensive sampling at resolutions from 2,000 lbs., so a minimum of 60 samplings are taken from each 2,000 lbs. and tested. If it passes the test and is negative, it goes to further processing. If it fails the process, it is diverted to primary PTO treatment and tested again. It assures even failures would then become safe. Raw pistachios that pass that process then go to roasting and flavoring. Then they are subjected to extensive testing before they reach the market. All interventions have gone through parameters that offer the best level of kill.

FP: What has the company done since the recall to improve the plant?

MIA COHEN: We have made significant upgrades to thoroughly modernize, repair and redesign our processing facility in California to meet significantly stricter food safety standards. We upgraded a portion of the physical structure of the facility, upgraded components of the roasters, installed new machinery and equipment and state-of-the-art sanitization equipment. We have also implemented industry-leading procedures for agricultural practices and a vendor and customer certification system for our supply chain partners. This plan was put in place with the guidance of third-party food safety experts and parallels the successful practices of other food industries.

We began roasting again on June 1 after working through all of FDA’s questions on the recall. Raw in-shell pistachios were never part of the recall. Our customers were very supportive and we shipped them overseas during this time. It was roasted kernel pistachios that were recalled. We’re really focused on the future right now. The recall is over, the product in question has been returned, we’ve made the changes to ensure safety, and look forward to providing roasted pistachios again.

FP: Do you feel the media was fair in its reporting?

MIA COHEN: I understand there is concern when a voluntary recall is initiated. We immediately took responsibility and communicated with our stakeholders, and felt our message was clear -- we were handling the recall effectively, and focused on ensuring our facility was improved and operations were incorporating pathogen controls.

FP: The worst charge has been that Setton knowingly shipped products that contained salmonella. Could you respond?

MIA COHEN: When all of the facts are taken into account, the evidence clearly demonstrates that no shipment of pistachios left our facility following a positive test for salmonella. And to the extent that any positive results were reported to us by our outside lab after shipment, we took immediate action to alert our customers and ensure the product in question was either quarantined or returned to us for remedial action.

FP: Has your relationship with the FDA been positive?

MIA COHEN: Yes, the FDA has been a real partner. Obviously, we had never been through a recall before, so we were anxious to learn from them. They were also pleased with our cooperation. We took responsibility, brought in food safety experts to guide us, worked very closely with them. We continue to keep them abreast about or physical plant and processing changes, and they are pleased with what we’ve done.

FP: How has this affected your family and employees?

MIA COHEN: It’s been difficult on our family, but it’s our employees who are of paramount importance to us. Although we have 500 employees at our Terra Bella facility, we know them very well. Many of them have been with us for many years. This year alone they handled 54 million lbs. of pistachios. They were just as surprised as we were. The employees are very pleased with the changes we made to the physical plant, changes in operations and the people brought in to guide us. It’s resulted in a shift of responsibilities, and our employees have been very supportive. Everyone who works for us is part of our family and we appreciate the work they do.

FP: What did Setton learn from this difficult situation?

MIA COHEN: Our company learned that communication is of vital importance. We reached out to our customers and shared what we learned and what we were doing internally, and we wanted them to know we had open lines of communication so they felt free to contact us. Those first few weeks, we talked to our customers and set up two consumer hot lines, so that consumers knew we were handing the recall effectively. We wanted them to know we were taking the appropriate steps to ensure their safety. By creating those venues for our consumers, they had the ability to ask questions and get answers.

FP: What can other companies learn from this situation?

MIA COHEN: Other companies should take into consideration the possibility of pathogen contamination, even if their company has never seen a problem before. Pathogen control is where you start. Communication is key – immediately begin communicating with customers assuring them you are on top of the situation. Understand what FDA is asking you to do, and you are doing your best to handle all details. Make sure you are focused on making the necessary changes that will continue to allow your customers to be involved. Our customers supported us all the way through. They know how we feel about our products and that we take safety seriously. Many have been to our plant and saw our attention to detail in every phase of production. We would guide others to focus on learning from this experience to become a stronger company. At the end of the day, focus on continuous improvement on a daily basis to ensure success.

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