Here is more from the transcript from the USDA-FDA hearing on traceability on Dec. 10. Here, Richard Matoian, executive director of the Western Pistachio Association, speaks about what makes any commodity “high-risk.”


Moderator: So, again, welcome our panel, and I'd like to ask Richard Matoian to please come to the front here.

MR. MATOIAN: Good morning. Next slide, please. Just by way of background, a little bit of background information on pistachios. They were first experimentally planted in a USDA facility in Northern California in 1930, but it really wasn't until the 1960s that commercial production really took off.

And I bring this up just to point out that while pistachios are a very old commodity, being mentioned in the first book in the Bible, commercial production in the United States really is a recent phenomenon.

Our first commercial crop was in 1976, and we had a record crop in 2007 where we produced about 415 million pounds. Next slide, please. Maintaining quality in food safety has been an important component for the U.S. pistachio industry, and in the year 2000, a good agricultural practices document was implemented for the industry.

 They were guidelines, not regulations, and they basically followed the FDA guidelines that were in place at that time. Next slide. Also in that same year, a good manufacturing practices document, as we call a good processing practices document, was developed and the manual provided an overview of the FDA guidance and regulations and also recommended HACCP implementation.

 Next slide. These industry GMPs included employee GMP, HACCP, SOP, SSOP, pest control, general facility compliance, which would include controls and testing within the facility as well as third party audits or GMP compliance.

A few additional things that you should know about pistachios, particularly the fact that they're mechanically harvested. Machines are brought into the field, and there's a catch frame that goes on either side of the tree, and as the tree is shaken, the nuts fall onto this catch frame. So, therefore, the nets never touch the ground, and there's no gleaning. So what nuts fall on the ground, stay on the ground.

Basic U.S. processing, besides harvesting, involves bringing the product into a facility where an outer fleshy hull is removed, and then the product is dried down to a standardized moisture level, and then from there, the product is processed, where it's graded electronically, and then there's also sorting tables where bad product, off grade, off color product, is removed. From there it's roasted, and there it's packaged.

But despite all the processes that we had in place prior, previously in March of this year, March 25th, we had our first ever pistachio recall due to Salmonella. It involved only one single processor, and with that processor, only one half of one percent of total production was affected by the recall, but no matter the amount, this was a serious issue for our pistachio industry.

Next slide. One thing I do want to note is that neither the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor state health departments have reported any consumer illness directly connected with pistachios. So why do I bring this particular point up? While the incidence of food safety is of concern, also should be the fact that there's been a lack of any confirmed illness in any consumer that is noteworthy. And, you know, as we continue to hear about legislative hearings on the Hill and even in  the Federal Register Notice for this particular meeting, pistachios continually are brought up as a, you know, violator of food safety.

 And while, you know, any commodity does not want to be singled out, I think it just poses a question, you know, no commodity wants to be a poster child for a food safety incident. And so we need to think about what should be a criteria for continually listing a particular commodity as being a violator. Is it the fact that it had a food safety outbreak? Is it the amount of product recalled? Is it the amount of confirmed illness across the U.S.?

Is it the demographic or the incidence of illness across the United States as opposed to it being localized in a particular area? I think these are all questions that we have as a commodity because again, no commodity wants to be singled out where the facts may not justify it being singled out, but the fact that there's been no confirmed illness.

Okay. Produce traceability. That's why we're here today. This is really the topic of discussion. I can start and end my comments by saying that traceback and traceforward are in place for our industry, but that alone does not provide all the details, you know, for regulators and for consumers across the U.S. because the detail of the tracing mechanism that's desired by regulators, I think, is what's in question here.

While we can say that we have mechanisms in place, we really need to examine what exactly are the details of those traceforward and traceback mechanisms. The industry certainly wants to better itself, and our industry is currently examining food safety and traceability. We have studies going on with the University of California at Davis, with the Center for Produce Safety, and we do want to continue to partner up to develop better systems. But there are a number of issues that need to be examined. First, there's the immense proportion and complexity in the food and agricultural processing system. What may work for one commodity may not work for another.  Consistency between commodities. We have mentioned today the definition of a lot.

 What is meant by a lot? In our industry, we refer to production lot. Large versus small entities, cost versus benefit to achieve the result, reliability once a product is sold in the supply chain. In our industry, a significant amount of our product is sold to rebaggers, and there's lots of commingling. So that's an issue that needs to be examined. We know our product and where it goes, but where it goes after to these rebaggers is I think still in question. We want to have public/private partnerships. I know in September of this year, we had FDA out in California.

 The tree nut industry toured them around, to gain a better knowledge of our food processing facilities and understand better the mechanisms in place, but as I talked to processors about this particular tour, many of them were concerned that there was going to be enforcement that was going to take place. So as we  work with the regulating community, we want to make sure that there's a positive partnership rather than the enforcement role in being able to develop these various food traceability mechanisms. And also the industry, whether it's going to self-regulate itself or whether there's going to be regulation or legislation that causes the industry to act.

We want to believe that we can self-regulate. We have a marketing order in place in which we can put these various practices in place. I want to bring up a couple of slides that shows the importance of why food safety and traceability is important to our industry. In 1987 to about 2003, this chart shows new plantings that were placed in the industry.

For a number of years, new plantings were going at a pretty steady pace, but from 2004 to 2008, that substantially increased. And as a result, our production in our commodity has substantially increased. And what that points out to us is that we have a growing commodity that is desired by consumers, and I can tell you that the U.S. pistachio industry has a vested interest in developing defensible and auditable practices regarding food safety. So this issue is not one that we're going to set aside. We're going to address it and make sure that we have systems in place that provide consumers with a level of safety that they desire and that will allow our industry to continue to move forward.