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.

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