March 4, 2010 - Thousands of processed food products may have been contaminated with salmonella, the FDA today announced.
Fifty-six products have been recalled. The list is expected to grow, Jeffrey Farrar, the FDA's associate commissioner for food protection, said at a news conference.
"We don't know how large this is going to get," Farrar said. "This will get larger over the next several days and weeks. ... The recall process may continue for some time."
The contamination comes from a widely used flavoring called hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) made by Basic Food Flavors Inc. of Las Vegas. An astonishing variety of products use HVP, including hot dogs, potato chips and other snack foods, soups, salad dressings, sauces, chilis, stews, gravies, and dips.
A wide range of foods already have been recalled. They include soup mixes, dips, pre-packaged meals, potato chips, snack foods, and salad dressings carrying the brand names Castella, Follow Your Heart, Great Value, Hawaiian, Homemade Gourmet, Johnny's Fine Foods, Oak Lake Farms, T. Marzetti, and Trader Joe's.
Possibly contaminated HVP has been shipped from the Las Vegas plant since last September. It's sent out in 50-pound boxes, and these large packages may be subdivided many times by other companies before being added to a final product.
It's not possible to tell from a product label whether the food contains HVP or whether the HVP comes from the contaminated plant. Consumers should go to a web site that will be updated by the FDA as soon as new recalls are issued.
"Consumers can access a searchable database to find recalled products that may be in their pantry," Farrar said.
The good news is that nobody is known to have been sickened by contaminated foods. Unlike the recent peanut butter recall, in which investigators had to figure out what made people sick and then trace the contamination back to the source, the FDA was tipped off by a company that tested the HVP before putting it into their product.
Under a new program begun by the FDA just last September, the company was required to report the test result to the FDA. This happened last month, triggering an FDA investigation. Federal and state investigators went to the plant and discovered salmonella in the machinery used to make HVP.
Some of the companies that received the HVP have "kill steps" -- usually cooking or heating -- that eliminate salmonella during the processing of their food product. But the FDA has asked firms making any ready-to-eat food to recall their products if they contain HVP from the Las Vegas plant.
Foods that undergo a "kill step" at home, such as microwave dinners, may not be recalled even if they contain the recalled HVP, said Jenny Scott of the FDA's food center.
"Cooking by a consumer would be enough to kill salmonella," Scott said at the news conference.
The risk of contamination may be quite low. Most processed foods contain no more than 1% of HVP. The flavoring is made by breaking down (hydrolyzing) vegetables via a chemical process.
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, MD, said this episode shows why food safety laws should be strengthened to allow federal and state inspectors to check plants for contamination without having to wait for someone to find a contaminant -- or for someone to get sick.
"We are working hard to respond to this particular outbreak. Also, we are working hard to put in place the kinds of preventive control measures to stop this from happening in the first place," she said at the news conference.