Originally published March 4. Updated March 9 and March 11.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced a recall of millions of pounds of a product you've never heard of, made by a company you've never heard of, that's in a lot of foods you have not only heard of, but most certainly eaten. It's made by Basic Food Flavors Inc. in Las Vegas, Nevada and it's called HVP. (No, it's not the STD.) HVP is short for hydrolyzed vegetable protein, a ubiquitous food-like substance found in just about every category of processed foods available in American supermarkets.
Already dozens of those processed foods have been recalled, and you can expect many more. The Washington Post and others predict this could lead to the biggest food recall in U.S. history.
Update: The latest recalls involve two flavors of Pringles snack chips (at 42% potato, it's hard to even call it a potato chip), other potato chips, pretzels, soups, peppers and spices and a variety of other foods. For the latest recalls, jump to the food recalls widget.
Even so, the FDA and other federal agencies are counting the discovery of salmonella typically found in feces, not food in the product as a success because they think a customer of Basic Food Flavors blew the whistle on the contamination before it caused anyone to get sick. Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Even healthy people don't have fun consuming it... unless fever, bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain are your idea of a good time. The risk of widespread illness from this recall is considered low because both subsequent food makers and consumers typically heat these foods to a high enough temperature that the salmonella is killed.
If the FDA's optimism proves true, then ... Good job, food regulators. But the incident opens a window on the industrialized food system and how easily it can sicken us, rather than nourish us.
HVP is used as a "flavor enhancer" in just about every processed food on the market: soups, sauces, chilis, stews, hot dogs, gravies, seasoned snack foods, dips and dressings.
According to Wikipedia, HVP is:
produced by boiling cereals or legumes, such as soy, corn, or wheat, in hydrochloric acid and then neutralizing the solution with sodium hydroxide. The acid hydrolyzes, or breaks down, the protein in vegetables into their component amino acids. The resulting dark coloured liquid contains, among other amino acids, glutamic acid, which consumers are more familiar with in the form of its sodium salt, monosodium glutamate, or MSG. It is used as a flavor enhancer in many processed foods.
That's what they talk about when they talk about industrialized food. When's the last time you boiled your veggies in hydrochloric acid (also used to make PVC) before cooking up a nice soup? The great thing about using lye (sodium hydroxide) as a finishing agent, is that you can keep extra on hand for making chemical drain cleaner. Yum.
This one company is supplying that product to multiple food manufacturers (just listen to that phrase, "food manufacturers"; it doesn't sound like a farm, does it?). Multiple manufacturers produce foods (or food-like substances, as Michael Pollan calls these processed foods) that are stocked around the country. When contamination in such a base ingredient occurs, the result can easily be contamination of entire shelves' worth of grocery store items. And many people becoming ill.
If hazelnuts are recalled, you can know to avoid hazelnuts. When HVP is recalled, you'd have to avoid just about any processed, packaged food to avoid it. (Which isn't such a bad idea, for your health or the health of the environment.)
"This situation clearly underscores the need for new food safety legislation to equip FDA with the tools we need to prevent contamination," said Dr. Jeff Farrar, associate commissioner for food safety, FDA's Office of Foods.
You know what else it underscores? How weirdly disgusting our food system is.
For more info, and to keep up to date on the flood of recalls that might very well follow this one, use the widget below:
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