March 4, 2010 -- Numerous food products are being recalled due to possible salmonella contamination in a widely used flavor enhancer, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP), the FDA has announced.
HVP, a relative of MSG, enhances savory flavors in processed foods such as soups, hot dogs, chili, stews, dips, salad dressings and other snack foods.
"We don't know precisely how large this recall will get, but we expect this to get larger over the next several days to several weeks," Jeff Farrar, FDA associate commissioner for food protection said at a Thursday press conference.
The contamination was detected several weeks ago in HVP produced by Basic Food Flavors Inc. of Las Vegas, Nev., and made known to the FDA through the newly-instituted Reportable Food Registry.
Since then, the FDA has confirmed salmonella contamination at Basic Food Flavors' plant, and all HVP produced by the facility since Sept. 17, 2009, is subject to recall.
Potentially contaminated food products that have a "kill step," however, in which heating or other preparation of the food would kill any salmonella bacteria, will not be subject to recall.
As of Thursday afternoon, nearly 30 products had been recalled. For a full list of recalled items, see the FDA's www.foodsafety.gov.
A list of more than 50 recalled foods on the Web site includes several dips manufactured by T. Marzetti, Sweet Maui Onion potato chips manufactured by Tim's Cascade Snacks, Tortilla Soup mix made by Homemade Gourmet and several prepackaged "Follow Your Heart" tofu meals manufactured by Earth Island.
"At this time, we believe the risk to consumers of this ingredient is very low," Farrar said.
Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in those with compromised immune systems, small children, and the elderly. No illnesses associated with this contamination have been reported to date.
Margaret Hamburg, the FDA commissioner, said at the press conference that this outbreak, caught before any reported illnesses, is a testament to the effectiveness of the new registry, but added that at the same time, "we are also working hard to put in place the kind of preventive control measures to prevent this from happening in the first place."
Mmm, Mmm, Chemicals
HVP is used in thousands of products to lend a meaty or brothy flavor to foods. While it is chemically synthesized, it is considered a natural flavoring as it is derived from vegetable products, most commonly soy, wheat or corn, said Benjamin Jones, senior chemist at the flavor company David Michael & Co.
"Typically start with corn, soy or wheat gluten, add hydrochloric acid, and cook the living daylights out of it," Jones said.
The high temperatures break down the proteins into amino acids, and after this is neutralized with sodium hydroxide, you get a material that's perfectly safe to handle, he said.
Because the FDA requires that the flavoring be declared on the packaging, consumers will be able to tell which products contain HVP -- it will be noted on the ingredients list.
However, the FDA said in a press release Thursday that consumers will be unable to tell which HVP-containing foods might be dangerous just by reading food labels. The labels do not say which items have HVP manufactured by Basic Food Flavors, Inc.
To safely remove dangerous products from circulation, the FDA is currently working with food manufacturers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.
The Flavor Factory
Synthesized flavors, like HVP, are used ubiquitously in food manufacturing, but do we really need additives like these to make that hot dog taste like a hot dog?
Jack Fastag, president of the Society of Flavor Chemists, said that without added flavorings, it would be impossible to preserve the type of consistency in taste that consumers have come to expect from brand label foods.
"It goes hand-in-hand with industrialization," he said. "Consumers expect that certain products will taste the same every time, but in reality, that's quite difficult to accomplish. Things will change from crop to crop, year to year."
With the development of flavor technology, this type of consistency is made possible, he said, and is now indispensible to food manufacturers.
The work of flavor chemists was not always as widely accepted, however.
At the turn of the century, flavor makers were often lampooned as "Adulterators, Food Poisoners, and Drug Dopesters" by politicians and newspapers, according to a history of the industry from the Flavor Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA).
But as the convenience of processed, preserved foods became more popular, flavors and extracts were needed to restore the proper taste to foods when inherent flavors were lost during processing and the industry grew.
Today, the fruits of this multibillion-dollar industry can be found in most processed foods on grocery shelves, often under the simple title: "natural and artificial flavors."
This was the first flavor-related recall of this kind, Farrar said, and one that underscores the FDA's need for stronger regulatory tools in dealing with food safety.