Few would have predicted that when history is written on the first term of the Obama Administration that peanuts and pistachios would play such prominent roles.   Those unlikely products, however, will be used by historians to demonstrate the bad old ways versus the new U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

Maybe because the new President himself came from the streets of Chicago, he went to the front lines of the country’s public health challenge to select Dr. Margaret Hamburg as FDA Commissioner and Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, as her deputy.   Dr. Hamburg, an expert in biological defense and disease control, was during the 1990s the youngest person in history to serve as New York City’s health commissioner.  Dr. Sharfstein, a pediatrician, came to FDA directly from heading up the Baltimore Health Department.

It is really hard to overstate how unusual it is to have two top FDA officials from the gritty streets of big cities.   Almost all previous FDA Commissioners come from academic and research backgrounds.  You can go through each biography of past FDA Commissioners here

Few had any in-the-streets experience.   LBJ’s last commissioner, Dr. James Goddard, came out of the Public Health Service at a time when federal doctors wore uniforms and saw patients.   And Nixon’s appointee, Dr. Herbert Lay, Jr., was known for his service as an epidemiologist for our troops in Korea and Vietnam.

But that’s about it.   FDA Commissioners have not been folks who got their hands dirty, knocking down the TB rate in the Big Apple as Dr. Hamburg did or taking on the dangers of over-the-counter cold and cough medicines for children under age 2 as Dr. Sharfstein did.  The typical FDA honcho creates process, not results.

So when Sharfstein took over FDA, while waiting for Hamburg to clear the Senate, it really should have come as no surprise that he opted to recall Salmonella-contaminated pistachios before anyone got sick.

The FDA has completed its inspection of Salmonella contamination in pistachios and pistachio products at Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella, Inc., Terra Bella, Calif., and presented a 483 Inspection Report to the firm.


It now says that the 606 products involved in the pistachio recall to date should be about it, but consumers are advised to check the list before eating anything that contain pistachios.  That list can be found here.   FDA’s recall database contains pistachios and pistachio products that have been recalled because they contain pistachios recalled by Setton Pistachio.

And FDA warned the public:  "Consumers should not eat pistachios or food products containing them (such as pistachio bakery goods and pistachio ice cream) until they can determine that the products do not contain pistachios recalled by Setton.  FDA’s warning does not apply to pistachios and pistachio products not associated with recalled pistachios from Setton Pistachio."

Costly to the pistachio industry?  Most certainly.   Anybody sick?  Not that we know of.

The contrast to the peanut fiasco would not be more stark.

The Peanut Corporation of America’s conduct is now the subject of a criminal investigation.  Its products made at least 714 in 46 states and Canada sick with Salmonella Typhimurium.  One out of four of those confirmed cases required time in the hospital to recover and nine people died.

The eventual recall of products and ingredients that came from PCA has exceeded 3,900.  Check it out here.   PCA’s plants in Plainview, TX and Blakely, GA are modest by manufacturing standards, but have had a devastating impact on the entire peanut industry.

Costly to the peanut industry?  $1 billion lost, according to the Georgia Peanut Commission.  PCA is in bankruptcy.  Its customers, who put PCA peanut butter in their products, are probably going to have to eat the cost.   And we already spoke of the sick and the dead.

PCA’s Texas plant escaped state and federal regulation entirely.  The Lone Star State imposed a $14.6 million fine.  Lot’s luck with that one.  In Georgia, PCA paid for the best outside inspection report money could buy. (There is an audit company out there that should be zapped by the Almightly.)

Peanuts and Pistachios.   Before and After.  FDA Commissioners from ivory Towers versus the Streets.   History in the making, that much is for sure.