The US food industry is reeling from a recent spate of Listeria bacteria contaminations that have claimed the lives of at least 3 people in the last two months and left at least 10 people across four states in hospital.
On March 13, and for the first time in its 108 year history, Blue Bell Creameries announced a product recall after one of its machines produced a limited amount of frozen snacks with a “potential Listeria problem”.
However, listeria may have been present in the company’s products for far longer as examinations conducted at the company’s factories have genetically linked listeria bacteria from two separate Blue Bell factories to at least six previous cases dating back as far as 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told NBC News.
After weeks of gradual recalls, the company recalled all its ice cream, frozen yoghurt, sherbet and other frozen treats sold in 23 states due to the Listeria outbreak.
Now the company must undertake the arduous task of trying to decontaminate the plant which involves taking apart all its equipment and painstakingly cleaning every component.
Other recent Listeria outbreaks
The Blue Bell Creameries case has drawn attention to the issue of Listeria and in the space of only a month, at least three separate recalls have been issued due to Listeria although no illnesses have been recorded as related to the recalls.
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream has issued a full recall of all products and is in the process of destroying 265 tonnes of its product at a cost to the company of approximately $2.5m.
‘The all-hands-on-deck listeria eradication effort continues at our production kitchen,’ wrote Jeni’s CEO John Lowe in a statement on April 28. ‘World-class experts and our team are working together to ensure we get it all, finally and forever.’
A nationwide recall has also been announced for some 30,000 cases of hummus made by the Sabra company, due to possible Listeria contamination. The FDA said the recall is voluntary and no illnesses have been reported.
The recall covers several products with a “best by” date of May 11 or May 15 (see details below). The products are predominantly the “Classic” variety of the hummus, in a range of sizes.
And just yesterday, a press release from the FDA revealed that Inventure Foods issued a voluntary recall of certain varieties of its Fresh Frozen line of frozen vegetables, as well as select varieties of its Jamba At Home line of smoothie kits, due to finding of listeria monocytogenes, in its Jefferson, GA facility.
Victims campaign for more to be done
During a period from late last year to early this year, 35 people from 12 states were infected following a listeria outbreak of strains of listeria monocytogenes linked to commercially-produced, prepackaged whole caramel apples. The CDC reported that 34 ill people were hospitalized and that listeriosis contributed to at least three of the seven deaths that were reported.
Eleven illnesses were pregnancy-related, with one illness resulting in a fetal loss. Illness onset dates ranged from October 17, 2014 to January 6, 2015.
To date, caramel apple brands named as being related to the listeria outbreak include Happy Apple, Carnival and Merb’s Candies.
Brad Frey, whose mother passed away in December 2014 after eating a contaminated caramel apple purchased at Safeway, last week directly addressed the FDA and food industry officials at the agency’s kickoff meeting for implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act.
“In December, my mother passed away from listeria,” Frey said, speaking to FDA officials in the audience and a panel of food industry representatives taking questions. “Since the caramel apple outbreak, we’ve seen three more outbreaks in the news. It’s pretty heartbreaking to know that testing could have saved lives, but not enough testing is being done.”
John McKissick, a retired teacher and consultant from Pennsylvania who fell ill with listeria three years ago after eating contaminated cheese imported from Italy and France.
McKissick spent two months hospitalized, six weeks of that time unconscious. The infection caused significant nerve damage and, as a result, he had little choice but to retire from work.
“In many cases, listeria infection is a life sentence,” he told FDA officials. “It cannot be taken lightly.”
According to Food Safety News, Agency officials are working to ensure strong standards for the companies that audit foreign food suppliers, but are also setting up “rigorous protections” to make sure there are not financial ties between the suppliers and the auditors, said Charlotte Christin, special assistant to the director of the Office of Compliance within FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.