Food companies that use HVP made by Basic Food Flavors have so far said they are voluntarily recalling over 50 products, these include soups, sauces, chillis, stews, hot dogs, gravies, seasoned snack foods, dips and dressings.
However, the recall list is expected to grow: there are few manufacturers of HVP and thousands of product lines contain the additive which is used to enhance flavor.
Jeff Farrar, associate commissioner for food protection at the FDA told the press:
"We don't know precisely how large this recall will get .. the potential amount of products . . . is very large," he is said to have told the press, according to a report in the Washington Post on Friday.
Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union said:
"This can potentially be in over 10,000 products."
The first the FDA knew about the contamination was when a food company that uses the HVP product in its own processed food detected the bacteria in a sample last month and reported it on the FDA's new Reportable Food Registry.
Since then an inspection of the Nevada plant has yielded further evidence of Salmonella Tennessee in the company's processing equipment, and it is likely that the contamination may date back to HVP powder and paste made since last September.
It will take time to gauge the full extent of the problem because millions of pounds of potentially contaminated HVP have been shipped since September, and the clients it has shipped to have added it to their own products and sold them them to other food producers and retailers. Thus there are several steps in an ever widening network before the HVP reaches the consumer.
The FDA said so far there have been no reports of people falling ill from the contamination and the health risk is likely to be low; however they are monitoring and assessing the situation with other federal agencies.
For an up to date list of US foods affected see the searchable FDA Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein Containing Products Recall List.
The authorities in Canada are also keeping a close eye on the situation, and so far two product brands have been pulled: two types of T. Marzetti-brand veggie dips and two types of Tim's Cascade Snacks Hawaiian Kettle Style Potato Chips.
Consumers are informed that products should be safe if they are properly cooked, as this kills the bacteria.
However, many of the ready to eat products affected are not intended for cooking after purchase, at least not at a temperature that would kill the bacteria, so the FDA advised manufacturers to recall them unless they have documented evidence that they themselves cooked the products containing the possibly tainted HVP at a temperature high enough to kill the bacteria.
Eating food containing salmonella causes an illness known as salmonellosis which can lead to serious infection in vulnerable people such as children, the elderly and anyone with a weakened immune system (eg people with HIV or undergoing chemotherapy).
In healthy people, salmonellosis can result in headache, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea.
What is HVP?
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein HVP is used by food manufacturers to enhance flavor. It is made by chemically breaking down proteins into amino acids, for instance by boiling up corn, wheat and/or soya with hydrochloric acid, to isolate the amino acids, then neutralizing with sodium carbonate or sodium hydroxide. The result is a mixture of amino acids, one of which, incidentally, could be monosodium glutamate (MSG).
For US consumers it can be confusing because where MSG is added directly as a flavour enhancer it has to be declared on the label, but if it happens to be present in HVP it does not. (The process of making HVP means that some free glutamate (a non-essential amino acid) may join with free sodium to form MSG: in this case MSG may be present but does not have to be declared on the label).
Sources: FDA, CTV, Chicago Tribune, USDA (FSIS), Washington Post, Science Friday.
Written by Catharine Paddock PhD