A recent string of food recalls over the potential for Salmonella poisoning that started with little detail or connection has grown into a massive series of recalls affecting potentially thousands of products using an obscure ingredient that is tainted: Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (HVP).
HVP, a flavor enhancer that typically contains MSG and is found in a wide variety of foods including chips and dips, salad dressings, soups and even burritos. Because the ingredient can be used in almost anything, the scope is potentially staggering.
Over the past week, at least a half-dozen companies have announced related recalls and given the enormity of the list of the lot numbers being recalled by the manufacturer -- Basic Food Flavors of Las Vegas -- it's apparent it's going to keep growing.
Among the product recalls announced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration so far:
The recalls include products made over several months and, due to the shelf life of many of the products, many are likely to still be in people's homes. HVP tested positive for Salmonella at the Basic Food plant, according to some of the companies announcing recalls.
A database of products known to have used this ingredient is now available on the FDA site.
Because the FDA does not have the authority to issue recalls itself, the agency urges companies it knows have a product with health concerns to issue recall notices (the FDA then posts those notices). Because the releases are done by the individual companies they lack uniformity and don't always identify the source of potential contamination or identify it in the same way, creating some confusion about links between different recalls.
UPDATE: The FDA later in the day issued a statement acknowledging the scope of the potential contamination.
"Our investigators were able to identify this problem before any illnesses occurred," FDA commissioner Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg said in the statement. "While the investigation is continuing, the agency is supporting reasonable steps to continue to protect the public health."
The FDA said that it investigated the Basic Food Flavors plant after one of its customers reported finding Salmonella Tennessee in one of the lots of HVP.
The agency took samples and found that strain of Salmonella in the company's equipment. All HVP made their since Sept. 17, 2009 is being recalled.
Salmonella poisoning can cause a wide range of gastrointestinal problems and can be particularly dangerous to the young, old and those with compromised immune systems.
Benjamin Chapman, a professor at North Carolina State University specializing in food safety, said with recalls like this it is difficult to know just how large they can become.
"We don't really know where products with HVP get (the ingredient from) without them coming forward with a recall," he said. "With any ingredient recall it takes time for any company using it to be notified and to determine what product they used it in and then recall it."
That cumbersome process -- which the FDA can accelerate behind-the-scenes by getting a company's distribution list and contacting its customers -- is why the announcements come out in dribs and drabs. In the case of the huge Peanut Corporation of America recall last year, deaths and numerous illnesses along with the company's financial failure heightened the FDA's role and helped show the enormity of the outbreak.