Local company's mistake may bring stricter food standards

The national recall of a food flavoring ingredient made by North Las Vegas-based Basic Food Flavors has unwittingly thrust the company into the center of a political debate.

Last summer, the House of Representatives passed the Food Safety Modernization Act to rewrite many of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food inspection and enforcement powers in place since 1938. In November, the Senate version cleared the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, but it has since dropped into a holding pattern.

The FDA's March 4 announcement that Basic Food's hydrolyzed vegetable protein, a flavor additive used in thousands of products, was found to be contaminated by salmonella at least momentarily refocused attention on the bill.

"It certainly increases the pressure to act," said Kate Fitzgerald, a senior policy associate with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in Washington, D.C., which opposes some provisions. "Basic Food did put the bill back in the front of people's minds."

Sandra Eskin, director of Pew Charitable Trusts' food safety campaign, agreed that Basic Food revived attention in the bill.

"Every few weeks we are getting some recall or outbreak," she said. "Now we have HVP (hydrolyzed vegetable protein). Certainly, it continues to emphasize the need for the bill."

Those tracking the bill attributed its lack of progress to vote-seeking amendment efforts and being stuck in line behind health care.

At the March 4 announcement, FDA officials said the recall was not calculated for political effect but taken on the facts of the Basic Food case.

Still, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of the FDA, "I think (the Basic Food recall) does illustrate the broader point that we would like not to have episodes like this in the future. The shift in the food safety system that we can accomplish with the food safety legislation is one toward prevention."

Numerous groups and major food companies have lined up behind the legislation, which would greatly expand the FDA's inspection reach into the production process and impose fees to pay for it.

But a number of groups representing small and organic farmers have opposed some of provisions, contending they would disrupt their operations and impose higher costs with little impact on food safety.

Basic Food President Kanu Patel did not return calls seeking comment. But the company's Web site has posted a recall list that covers more than 770 batches of products, almost all of it hydrolyzed vegetable protein, that have come off its production lines since Sept. 17, a date that has been set as the beginning of tainted production.

As of March 16, the FDA's list of recalled finished foods reached 159, ranging from beef taquitos to ranch dip to honey-mustard pretzel nuggets.

However, the FDA has not reported any deaths or illnesses associated with products made with the additive. FDA officials said that generally the flavoring is used only in small amounts and included with products that go through a "kill step," the regulatory term for cooking.

A potential legal problem for Basic Food emerged when FDA documents showed that a private inspector found evidence of salmonella in the company's equipment in a report dated Jan. 21, yet the company continued to make the product. Two subsequent tests also found salmonella and an FDA inspection on Feb. 18 detailed pools of colored liquid and residues in production areas.

The Reportable Food Registry, which took effect last September, requires companies that find contamination to report it on a central docket within 24 hours. Basic Food's production of HVP continued until an unidentified purchaser found salmonella through its own testing and put it on the registry, triggering the FDA inspection.

The regulations specify that failure to report is considered a violation of the law, potentially exposing a company to fines and, in extreme cases, jail time. FDA spokeswoman Rita Chapelle said the investigation of Basic Food is "ongoing," with no determination yet of what actions that agency will take.

Contact reporter Tim O'Reiley at toreiley@lvbusinesspress.com or 702-387-5290.