by Erica Shaffer
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The California pistachio industry is undergoing an internal "make better" initiative. Refusing to merely tweak the status-quo, pistachio growers and processors are seeking industry-wide changes to transform a business from one that was pretty good at food safety to one that is better at ensuring raw and processed pistachio products are safe for consumers. The industry is studying mandatory food safety protocols similar to those established by the almond industry.

The initiative comes on the heels of a recall conducted by Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc., a division Setton International that led the company to recall its entire 2008 pistachio crop.

Richard Matoian, executive director of the Western Pistachio Association, Fresno, Calif., said the industry would need to use a state marketing order to make the change.

"It would implement rules and regulations that would have either state or federal government oversight," he said. "The oversight would be by the respective departments of agriculture."

Mr. Matoian said the industry viewed the change to mandatory food safety protocols as a multi-step process. He said some of the easier adjustments, such as maintaining segregation of raw and roasted product and implementation of validated kill steps may be accomplished fairly quickly.

"Things that still need industry input and consideration such as additional testing standards that need to be put in place, trace-back mechanisms that all the industry can adhere to — those things are probably going to take a bit longer," he said.

Mr. Matoian said segments of the industry would have some protocols in place before others, but when they become mandatory, the industry wants to ensure the practices and procedures are being implemented evenly across the board, he said.

"There's a desire to respond quickly with many of these initial steps just to make sure that the correct message gets out about stepping up food safety," he said.

Growers and processors are still developing food safety guidelines specifically dealing with the Salmonella issue, he said. Protocols such as segregation of raw and roasted product are already in place throughout the industry. Now, processors are looking at broader guidelines — such as the kill step that the Food and Drug Administration wants in place, validation of the kill step — that the industry may implement.

Trace-back mechanisms have also come under industry scrutiny. Mr. Matoian said the goal is to improve trace-back mechanisms so if a particular lot is affected the grower/processor may go back to the field level.

The Western Pistachio Association is moving forward with a public relations effort. The association's board of directors approved a new campaign in which $1 million will be spent on the domestic market and $1.5 million will be spent toward the foreign market, according to Mr. Matoian.

"The foundation for the plan is going to be on the nutritional and healthy aspects of the pistachio, and incorporating them into healthy snacking or nutritional consumption in eating by consumers," he said.

The association also has formed a partnership with Prevention Magazine. Matoian said the board decided it would be best to go with someone with credibility rather than just celebrity. The WPA has tapped registered dietitian Joy Bauer for the job. Bauer is the nutrition and health expert for the Today Show, and a regular contributor to a number of publications including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

"We're going to utilize her for various speaking engagements, and have press releases with quotes from her about incorporating pistachios into healthy snacking," Matoian said.

Also, some industry processors will be doing marketing campaigns independently of the association, he added.

For its part, Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella has responded to the challenge of recovery by revamping the company's food safety protocols. In a letter to W.P.A. members, Joshua Setton, president and chief executive officer of the company, outlined the changes and upgrades the company made to its facilities.

The company said it upgraded a part of the physical structure of the processing facility. Components of the roasters also were upgraded, and the entire facility was cleaned and sanitized.

Now, all raw pistachios are completely segregated from the roasted/ready-to-eat product, the company said. The changes were made to decrease the opportunities for cross-contamination through common surfaces, cross traffic and equipment during product flow, according to Setton Farms.

A new test and hold procedure for both raw and ready-to-eat products was also created with the goal of providing more oversight of quality control. The facility has dry-roasting and oil-roasting capabilities that have been certified to achieve proper pasteurization levels while maintaining product freshness, Setton Farms said.

Finally, the company hired a quality assurance manager. After all the upgrades and changes, the company said it resumed operations on June 1.

Pistachio prices rebounded after the recall and actually went to historic high levels, according to Mr. Matoian. He attributed the favorable bounce to a worldwide shortage of product. California's leading competitor, Iran, suffered a major freeze in 2008 that has caused a global shortage of pistachios and increased prices.

"It's difficult to characterize that the industry has fully rebounded because if you look at shipment reports, you can say shipments are down," he said. "But that's partially a product of short supply."

"I've been told by numerous processors that they are literally in the sold-out condition between now and when the new crop comes in."

The harvest of the new crop began around Sept. 1.

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