THE BLOG
05/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Eating In, Caveat Emptor: FDA Recalls scores of prepared and processed foods

For the past ten days my inbox has been filled with FDA bulletins announcing recalls of food products ranging from soup to nuts, chips to dips, packaged burritos and pasta entrees, salami, cheese, and ground red pepper. On March 4th, the FDA announced an overarching recall that links many of these products through a common ingredient, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) made by Basic Food Flavors, Inc. that's contaminated with what's called Salmonella Tennessee.

Recalls of specific products containing this HVP - among them soup mixes, dips, chips, and prepared salads, began earlier this week. More are expected. The contamination was initially identified the first week in February after being reported to the FDA's Reportable Food Registry by a Basic Food Flavors customer, explained Dr. Josh Sharfstein, Principal Deputy FDA commissioner, during a press conference. This prompted an FDA inspection of Basic Food Flavors' facilities in Nevada that then identified the Salmonella contamination. History of inspections at this plant were not immediately available.

The HVP recall was announced March 4th but Basic Food Flavors is recalling all powder and paste form HVP made since September 17, 2009. FDA officials said no illnesses associated with this contamination have been reported.

FDA officials who spoke with reporters could not estimate the eventual extent of the recall but it's likely to be extremely large. It already covers scores of products. Basic Food Flavors' database of recalled product runs six pages and contains well over 700 entries.

So what is HVP? It's used as a flavor enhancer - in products that include potato chips, hot dogs, and prepared tofu dinners. It's sold in bulk to processed food manufacturers, many of whom make food under multiple brand labels. As Jeffrey Farrar, FDA's Associate Commissioner for Food Protection explained, it's sold to "assignees and subassignees." In other words, it's sold to one level of customers who may then sell it on to end users.

"This recall," said Farrar, "is the first to involve HVP." According to the FDA, Basic Food Flavors is one of about ten U.S. manufacturers of HVP. Many others are located overseas.

The FDA has what is calls a "zero tolerance" for Salmonella in ready-to-eat foods. Agency officials explained that cooking can kill Salmonella - either during manufacturing or when the processed food is cooked at home by consumers. But many of the products in this recall are mixes for dips and salad dressings that don't require high temperature cooking.

Yesterday evening in a local supermarket I spotted a product subject to the HVP recall. Reading though the ingredients list I did not find hydrolyzed vegetable protein. "Consumers should not rely on ingredient lists," says Rita Chappelle, FDA press officer. HVP may not be named specifically but included as a "flavor enhancer" or under the heading of "natural flavor" as it's usually derived from corn, soy or wheat.

Since one doesn't typically cook at home with HVP, I asked Tim's Cascade Snacks whose Hawaiian Kettle Style Potato Chips and Sweet Maui Onion Rings are subject to recall, what they use it for. "We get our seasonings from Basic Food Flavors," explained Michelle Weese, Tim's media spokesperson.

Reser's Fine Foods' technical director Steve Loehndorf explained that HVP is used to enhance and prolong savory food flavors, like those used in the Creamy Ranch Dip and the Redskin Potato Salad Reser's makes for WalMart and Safeway.

Hydrolyzed vegetable protein itself is made by breaking soybeans, corn or wheat - for example - into amino acids through a process called acid hydrolysis. One of these amino acids is glutamic acid, which in its salt form is known as monosodium glutamate or MSG. According to the FDA, if the glutamic acid in a food binds to a free source of sodium in that food it can form MSG - but this doesn't require labeling the product as containing MSG. That's only required if MSG is added directly. (Is HVP MSG? No, but it's used like it and can result in it.)

Meanwhile, back at the Basic Food Flavors website, I took a closer look. HVP products are sold according to application (among them beef, chicken, and pork) and color (brown, tan, yellow). "Specialty items" include products described as "roast onion," "bacon" and "smoke HVP." ("Natural smoke flavor," anyone?) There are also "transfat free" "non-GMO"chicken and beef flavorings.

For the most up-to-date recall information, check the FDA's foodsafety.gov site. The cheese, pecans, red pepper, and salami recently recalled, contain a different strain of Salmonella than does the HVP. Bon appetit!