WASHINGTON (AP) - The company responsible for a ballooning recall of processed foods continued to manufacture and distribute a flavor-enhancing ingredient for a month after tests confirmed it was made with contaminated equipment, according to a Food and Drug Administration report.
FDA inspectors said the company, Las Vegas-based Basic Food Flavors Inc., knew of salmonella contamination on its equipment after it received the results of a private inspection on Jan. 21. Despite two additional inspections that showed contamination, the company continued to distribute the ingredient, called hydrolyzed vegetable protein, until Feb. 15, and continued to manufacture it until Feb. 20.
The FDA began an investigation of the company in response to a report from one of Basic Food Flavors' customers about salmonella contamination. During several visits to the plant beginning Feb. 12, agency inspectors found "light brown residue" and "dark brown liquid" in and around the paste mixers and inside pipes used to manufacture the ingredient, among other violations.
The agency said the company began notifying customers of the recall on Feb. 26 after discussions with the government. It was publicly announced by the FDA a week later.
Basic Food Flavors did not return a reporter's calls seeking comment.
No illnesses have been associated with the recall, according to the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control. Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children and others with weakened immune systems.
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, which is similar to monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is contained in thousands of processed foods. The agency has listed more than 100 recalled products dating back to September, including dips manufactured by T. Marzetti and McCormick and honey mustard pretzel bites manufactured by the National Pretzel Co. Two flavors of Pringles chips, Cheeseburger and "Taco Night," have also been recalled.
The Department of Agriculture, which oversees meat products, also announced a recall of 1.7 million pounds of ready-to-eat beef taquito and chicken quesadilla products that contain the ingredient.
FDA officials said they believe the risk to consumers is low, since many products that contain the ingredient are not dangerous because cooking them eliminates the risk of salmonella.
Still, food safety advocates used the recall as yet another example to push for legislation that would give the FDA more enforcement powers. The House passed a bill last year that would give the agency much more authority to police food production, but the Senate has not acted on it. Senate leaders have said they hope to pass similar legislation this spring.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, questioned the timeline of the recall, noting that the public did not know about the contamination until weeks after the company knew about it and at least a week after the FDA knew. Under current law, the FDA works with producers to organize voluntary recalls and cannot immediately order one.
"The FDA's hands are tied," she said. "Here's a company that did something that borders on criminal. We're just lucky nobody got sick."
The FDA found out about the salmonella through a new reportable food registry that allows companies to report to the government when they suspect a food may be tainted.
Despite that success, FDA principal deputy commissioner Joshua Sharfstein said last week that the bill now stalled in Congress could help the agency prevent these kinds of recalls.
"We would like to be able to set strong preventive standards that keep contamination from occurring in the first place," he said.