Officials at the Food and Drug Administration believe the public health risk is low, and no one is known to have fallen ill as a result of the contamination, but, manufacturers voluntarily recalled 56 products last week, and that number is expected to balloon in the coming weeks into what could be one of the largest food recalls in U.S. history. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union says over 10,000 products eventually could be affected.
FDA says thousands of types of processed foods, including many varieties of soups, chips, frozen dinners, hot dogs and salad dressings, may pose a health threat because they contain a flavor enhancer that could be contaminated with salmonella. Salmonella was detected early last month in one lot of the flavor enhancer hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or HVP made by Basic Food Flavors, as well as inside the company's Nevada manufacturing facility. The company is one of only a handful that make HVP. The additive is mixed into foods to give them a meaty or savory flavor. It's similar to monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
The contamination is believed to date to September 2009, meaning millions of pounds of potentially tainted HPV, all of which the company has recalled, was shipped in bulk to foodmakers over five months. Federal officials say the public health threat is low because most products containing HVP are cooked during processing or carry cooking instructions for consumers, so any salmonella would be destroyed before the food was eaten. Ready-to-eat products, such as chips and other snack foods, would carry greater risks.
In response to the FDA investigation, Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said consumers should not have to think twice about the safety of a food item when they reach into their pantry. According to Harkin, our nation's food safety system is outdated, lacks proper resources and, quite simply, does not adequately protect American consumers, and Congress cannot wait any longer to pass comprehensive food safety legislation.
On November 18, 2009 the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee reported out S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act. A similar bill is awaiting action in the House. Harkin, who is chairman of the Senate committee, says he hopes to have a comprehensive food safety bill on the President's desk in the very near future.
"We must give FDA the tools to prevent a food borne illness outbreak before it happens, rather than react when it is already too late," Harkin said. "And when food is tainted, we must provide the tools to respond quickly and protect consumers."