A large batch of the flavor enhancer known as hydrolyzed vegetable protein or HVP, supplied by Basic Food Flavors, a North Las Vegas food ingredient company, was found to be laced with salmonella. Thus far, over one hundred products containing the ingredient have been recalled in both the U.S. and Canada. The company produces about 20 million pounds of the food additive annually.
Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, the advocacy group that publishes Consumer Reports magazine, told Bloomberg that this case may trigger the recall of as many as 10,000 products. To be sure, HVP is used in virtually everything that is packaged or canned — 10,000 products may be a conservative estimate.
Canwest News reports that in Canada, consumers could be exposed to the contaminated batch through imported pre-packaged foods or items manufactured north of the border using the ingredient.
Michael Armstrong, a quality management specialist at Brock University’s faculty of business said this case is particularly challenging because the raw material is likely considered a generic commodity. This means a food manufacturer might buy HVP from many different suppliers over time, wherever it is cheapest, and store it all together without establishing an efficient trace-back system to a particular source or batch. “It’s the kind of ingredient that’s the hardest to trace,” said Armstrong.
The FDA claims they began discussions with Basic Food Flavors regarding the firm’s intentions to conduct a voluntary recall of the HVP the company had made on or after September 17. On Feb. 26, 2010, Basic Food Flavors began notifying its customers that it was recalling all of the HVP product made since September 17.
On March 4, 2010, Basic Food Flavors — who offers the food industry 120 varieties of hydrolyzed vegetable protein or HVP — announced a recall of its entire production dating to September 17, 2009. The Food and Drug Administration is continuously updating the recall list at www.foodsafety.gov.
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) is an MSG-like flavor enhancer that is mixed in with other spices, and added to thousands of processed foods, including chips, dip mixes, salad dressings, sauces, hotdogs, soups, frozen dinners, bouillons, gravy mixes, snacks, and ready-to-eat foods. And unless HVP is part of a flavor mix, HVP may not be listed as an ingredient on a food package.
Among some of the brand name items recalled are Quaker Crispy Minis rice cakes in tomato and basil, Family’s Best smokey bacon potato chips, Healthwise Cream of Mushroom Soup, two flavors of Pringles potato crips, kettle-style chips, and honey mustard/onion pretzels. According to Wal-Mart spokeswoman Anna Taylor, Wal-Mart’s Great Value Ranch Chip Dip, manufactured by T. Marzetti Co. of Columbus, Ohio, has been pulled from their shelves.
Two most recently added items are 1.7 million pounds of ready-to-eat beef taquito and chicken quesadilla products from a Houston firm, and 115,700 pounds of Tornados Ranchero Beef & Cheese roll-ups, made by Ruiz Foods of Denison, Texas.
Bloomberg reports that PepsiCo Inc. voluntarily recalled about 275,000 packages of Quaker Snack Mix Baked Cheddar in the U.S. And PepsiCo has joined Procter & Gamble Co., Nestle SA and McCormick & Co. in recalling products that contained HVPthe flavor protein, says Bloomberg.
“It’s a wake-up call for the food industry as a whole to be more thorough in evaluating the safety of ingredients,” said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. “Big companies are putting their trust in suppliers, which is their Achilles heel.”
Dan Flynn with Food Safely News claims the food ingredient company responsible, Basic Food Flavors, relocated to North Las Vegas after encountering too many regulatory obstacles in Pomona, California.
According to FDA inspection records, managers at Basic Food Flavors in Las Vegas learned on Jan. 21st that samples taken a week earlier from their Nevada facility tested positive for salmonella, but they continued shipping their product to foodmakers anyway.
The Washington Post reports Basic Food Flavors tested surfaces near food-processing equipment throughout its plant twice in January and once in February, and each time the samples showed salmonella contamination. The company continued to ship products and to make more HVP without cleaning the plant or the equipment in a way that would have minimized contamination, the FDA records said.
“The contamination is believed to date to September 2009, meaning millions of pounds of potentially tainted HVP — all of which the company has recalled — was shipped in bulk to foodmakers over five months. Many of those companies then sold their products to other clients, complicating the distribution chain and making it hard for federal officials to gauge the scope of the problem.”
FDA spokeswoman Meghan Scott says “The FDA is reviewing the evidence in association with the current inspection of Basic Food Flavors to determine the appropriate regulatory response.”
Is the FDA serious? The appropriate regulatory response would be to shut the company down! Despite federal officials being alerted to a problem with the Basic Food Flavors by a foodmaker who detected salmonella in one lot of HVP it purchased from them, the Nevada-based company didn’t announce a public consumer recall until March 4.
Remember, the FDA does not have the authority to order recalls so U.S. food companies are given carte blanche to poison the public at will. And if one of Basic Food Flavors customers hadn’t blown the whistle on the salmonella laced HVP, the FDA wouldn’t have known about the contamination at all.
The Washington Post said Federal inspectors subsequently went to the plant within days of the complaint and conducted 14 inspections in the span of about two weeks. They documented dirty utensils and equipment — mixers and tubing coated with brown residue — and cracks and fractures in the floor, as well as standing water on the floor — all conditions where bacteria can breed.
FDA inspectors noted “standing, grey/black liquid” in the drain near the area where the hydrolyzed vegetable protein was turned from paste to powder. “We sensed an odor in the vicinity of this drain,” the inspectors wrote.
Last year Setton Farms was the center of a salmonella scare and continued shipping nuts for six months knowing some of its pistachios were tainted.
Thus far no illnesses have been reported and food officials claim the risk is low for processed foods because they’re cooked; the risk is much higher though for uncooked foods like chips and dips. But as Sylvain Charlebois, a University of Regina business professor and author of the new book Not On My Plate: managing risk and fear, points out:
“You’re dealing with a byproduct, so if companies are not recalling their product, it’s because they probably don’t have an answer and they don’t know. Why? Because most companies do have a food traceability system, but it’s not transversal, meaning that their system doesn’t necessarily communicate efficiently with the systems of suppliers or customers or clients.”
List of Food Recalls: