Public health infrastructure: Quarter of Listeria cases in Texas not tracked or recorded

Roughly one-fourth of Texas cases involving Listeria, which contaminated Blue Bell ice cream and forced a crippling national recall in April, are not submitted to public health officials as required by law and go untracked, a newspaper reported Sunday.

listeria4Texas is not alone: Many state health departments in the U.S. don’t receive samples in 10 to 40 percent of confirmed Listeria cases to enter into databases, which can leave regulators unable to trace an outbreak, leave deadly food on the market and help companies avoid responsibility, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The Blue Bell outbreak could have been identified sooner had Listeria reporting been better around the country, said Richard Danila, assistant state epidemiologist for the Minnesota State Health Department.

“The clinical laboratory is there for the diagnosis and treatment of the patient,” said Shari Shea, director of food safety for the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “There’s not always appreciation for the way it fits into the public health system.”

At least 19 states don’t have laws requiring laboratories to submit confirmed Listeria samples, or “isolates,” to state health officials. Of those that do, Texas hovers around the middle of the pack in states missing samples in confirmed cases, according to the Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response.

But despite Texas requiring laboratories to submit samples, the state has never enforced the mandate. Texas Department of State Health Services spokeswoman Carrie Williams said the agency instead prefers to work with labs and health providers to educate them and bring them into compliance.

Penalties are almost never enforced in any state, said Craig Hedberg, epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. He said part of the reason is that public health departments depend on relationships with laboratories.

Cleaner cantaloupes: Sanitizers for rock melon

For health reasons, people are consuming fresh-cut fruits with or without minimal processing and, thereby, exposing themselves to the risk of foodborne illness if such fruits are contaminated with bacterial pathogens.

cantaloupe.salmonellaThis study investigated survival and growth parameters of Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and aerobic mesophilic bacteria transferred from cantaloupe rind surfaces to fresh-cut pieces during fresh-cut preparation. All human bacterial pathogens inoculated on cantaloupe rind surfaces averaged ∼4.8 log CFU/cm2, and the populations transferred to fresh-cut pieces before washing treatments ranged from 3 to 3.5 log CFU/g for all pathogens. A nisin-based sanitizer developed in our laboratory and chlorinated water at 1,000 mg/liter were evaluated for effectiveness in minimizing transfer of bacterial populations from cantaloupe rind surface to fresh-cut pieces. Inoculated and uninoculated cantaloupes were washed for 5 min before fresh-cut preparation and storage of fresh-cut pieces at 5 and 10°C for 15 days and at 22°C for 24 h. In fresh-cut pieces from cantaloupe washed with chlorinated water, only Salmonella was found (0.9 log CFU/g), whereas E. coli O157:H7 and L. monocytogenes were positive only by enrichment.

The nisin-based sanitizer prevented transfer of human bacteria from melon rind surfaces to fresh-cut pieces, and the populations in fresh-cut pieces were below detection even by enrichment. Storage temperature affected survival and the growth rate for each type of bacteria on fresh-cut cantaloupe. Specific growth rates of E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and L. monocytogenes in fresh-cut pieces were similar, whereas the aerobic mesophilic bacteria grew 60 to 80 % faster and had shorter lag phases.

 Efficacy of Sanitizer Treatments on Survival and Growth Parameters of Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes on Fresh-Cut Pieces of Cantaloupe during Storage

Journal of Food Protection®, Number 7, July 2015, pp. 1250-1419

Ukuku, Dike O., Huang, Lihan, Sommers, Andchristopher

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/iafp/jfp/2015/00000078/00000007/art00007

Still on every sandwich: Sprout safety in Australia

Seed sprouts have been implicated as vehicles for numerous foodborne outbreaks worldwide.

sprout.apple.aug.14Seed sprouts pose a unique food safety concern because of the ease of microbiological seed contamination, the inherent ability of the sprouting process to support microbial growth, and their consumption either raw or lightly cooked.

To examine seed sprout safety in the Australian state of Victoria, a survey was conducted to detect specific microbes in seed sprout samples and to investigate food handling practices relating to seed sprouts. A total of 298 seed sprout samples were collected from across 33 local council areas. Escherichia coli was detected in 14.8%, Listeria spp. in 12.3%, and Listeria monocytogenes in 1.3% of samples analyzed. Salmonella spp. were not detected in any of the samples.

A range of seed sprout handling practices were identified as potential food safety issues in some food businesses, including temperature control, washing practices, length of storage, and storage in proximity to unpackaged ready-to-eat potentially hazardous foods.

Microbiological Safety and Food Handling Practices of Seed Sprout Products in the Australian State of Victoria

Journal of Food Protection®, Number 7, July 2015, pp. 1250-1419

Symes, Sally, Goldsmith, Paul, Haines, Heather

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/iafp/jfp/2015/00000078/00000007/art00021

Means little to me says widower: NZ men and company fined $200K over Listeria meat sold to hospital

New Zealand is an island, but to say they’ve never had a problem with Listeria in cold cuts is to ignore history.

listeria4So much like Canada in 2008, and the U.S. in 1998. Listeria kills.

After two cold-cut related deaths in New Zealand in 2012, a health spokesthingy said they “routinely hands out brochures” and it no longer provides chilled pre- cooked meats to patients.

Do people really have to die before changes are implemented? Isn’t that why dieticians are in hospitals? Does anyone with a medical background know anything about Listeria?

It’s not like it’s something new.

Pay attention.

The widower of a woman who died in the Listeria outbreak at Hawke’s Bay Hospital in 2012 said the fines imposed on a meat company, its director and a staff member meant little.

In Napier District Court on Wednesday Bay Cuisine was fined $130,000, company director Garth Wise was fined $32,500 and production manager Christopher Mackie was fined $30,000.

The charges related to their supplying Listeria-contaminated meat to Hawke’s Bay Hospital and others, and for intentionally deceiving regulators by omitting test results that revealed the contamination.

Sound familiar?

The health board discovered cold ready-to-eat meats supplied by the company were contaminated in July 2012, after several Listeria cases had been linked to the hospital kitchen.

Patricia Hutchinson, 68, and an 81-year-old woman died after contracting listeria. Two other people were infected.

Robin Hutchinson, who held his wife of 46 years as she passed away, said “the fines imposed mean little to me”.

listeria.sweden“Even now there has not been a single word or remorse. For those people to have contacted myself and the Napier victim’s husband would have cost a tax deductible phone call. My feelings are they must jointly have a conscience of steel,” he said.

Hutchinson remained angry at the health board for providing cold meats to immuno-compromised patients such as his wife when Health Ministry advice was that such people should avoid it.

A DHB spokeswoman said the pre-packaged meats provided by Bay Cuisine had been tested and had shown negative results for listeria.

The Health and Disability Commisisoner had investigated the matter and found no fault by the DHB, she said.

DHB chief executive Kevin Snee said the company should have faced more serious charges.

The fines imposed on Wednesday brought some closure to the effects of the 2012 outbreak, but “the district health board remains of the view that it would have preferred to see the company facing more severe charges that reflect the seriousness of those acts, and the toll those actions have taken on people’s lives”.

Outside court an MPI spokesman said the charges laid against the company were the most severe available under the Animal Products Act, and anything more serious, such as manslaughter, would need to be laid by police.

Hawke’s Bay detective sergeant Mike Foster said the matter had been fully investigated by police and advice from the Crown had been that there was insufficient evidence to lay a criminal charge.

Judge Bridget Mackintosh said the decision to deceive had been intentional and the offenders must have known the risk their offending posed to those people at greatest risk of contracting listeria.

A subsequent editorial in the the Dominion Post says Bay Cuisine has got off far too lightly, and doesn’t the whole episode also reflects very badly on the regulator, the Ministry of Primary Industries?

This is a lamentable business and it raises the most serious questions.

The company stands condemned for intentionally deceiving MPI by not telling it about test results that showed its cold meats were contaminated by Listeria.

But MPI is also to blame in this matter, although they seem to have escaped any punishment.

When its tests found that meat from the company was contaminated, it did not inform the DHB because it didn’t know the meat was going to the hospital.

ITALY-G8-G5-AGRICULTURE-FARMThe obvious question is: why didn’t it know? Why didn’t it ask the company where it was sending the meat?

Wasn’t that an obvious query for a public health regulator? Isn’t the public entitled to think that the regulator would show more curiosity about the possible destination consumers of infected meat?

Snee says the DHB would have liked to know the result of the MPI tests earlier, but he was “not interested in relitigating events” that occurred three years ago.

This is a most unfortunate remark.

Unless we learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. Do we know that MPI has learned from its slackness back in 2012?

One of the fortunate results of this whole sad case is that both the company and  the regulator’s shortcomings have been exposed.

The company has been fined; the regulator will suffer a deserved dent in its reputation.

But Robin Hutchinson says neither he nor the husband of the other victim has heard “a single word of remorse” from the company.

If that is so it is a disgrace.

The New Zealand Meat Processors Association responded it is confident the industry is doing enough to stop Listeria-contaminated food from entering the market.

Environmental and Scientific Research was sent 62 unopened Bay Cuisine cold-meat packages and all were found to contain Listeria.

Company employees lied and told the district health board that a batch of corned silver side tested negative for listeria, although it had actually tested “presumptive positive”.

Meat Processors Association chair Nick Harris said this is a very rare case and he can’t believe a company would deceive customers.

“This is absolute top of mind of all manufacturers. Listeria is a very difficult organism and our industry works very, very hard to ensure that these types of situations don’t occur,” Harris reports.

“There’s probably 1000 tonnes of product produced each week in New Zealand and, as we mentioned, it’s the first case ever.”

Annals of great headlines: Blue Bell ice cream finds a sugar daddy after Listeria meltdown

CNN Money reports that Blue Bell Creameries, the ice cream maker that has been shutdown by listeria contamination tied to at least three deaths, has found a billionaire investor to help it get back on its feet.

blue.bell.scoopsThe company announced Tuesday that billionaire Sid Bass has become a partner. Bass, 73, is worth an estimated $1.7 billion, according to the latest estimate from Forbes. He has worked at his family’s investment firm his entire career, notably in its oil and gas holdings and the large stake it once held in the Walt Disney Co. (DIS)

Blue Bell was a leading ice cream brand in the southern U.S., but it had to recall all of its products in April after discovering widespread contamination by the listeria bacteria, which can survive at colder temperatures than most other deadly bacteria.

The business has been family owned for 108 years and does not release financial data. Estimates were that it was the nation’s fourth largest ice cream maker behind Nestle (NSRGF), maker of Dryer’s and Edy’s ice cream brands, Unilever (UL), which makes of Breyers and Ben & Jerry’s, and Wells Enterprises, which makes Blue Bunny.

Do the crime, do the time: US Justice Dept. warning of more food safety prosecution for outbreaks

Following a deadly listeria outbreak in ice cream, the Justice Department is warning food companies that they could face criminal and civil penalties if they poison their customers.

blue.bell.justice“We have made a priority holding individuals and companies responsible when they fail to live up to their obligations that they have to protect the safety of the food that all of us eat,” Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery said in an interview with The Associated Press.

After years of relative inactivity, the administration has stepped up criminal enforcement on safety cases. In the most high-profile case, a federal court in Georgia last year found an executive for the Peanut Corporation of America guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and other crimes after his company shipped out salmonella-tainted peanuts that sickened more than 700 and killed nine in 2008 and 2009.

Delery, the No. 3 official at the Justice Department, wouldn’t say whether the government plans to pursue charges against Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries, which recalled all its products and shut down production earlier this year after listeria in the company’s ice cream was linked to illnesses and three deaths. A Food and Drug Administration investigation found that Blue Bell knew that it had listeria in one of its plants for almost two years before the recall.

Other recent actions prompted by the Justice Department during the Obama administration:

— A 2013 guilty plea from Colorado brothers who grew and sold listeria-tainted cantaloupe that killed more than 30 people in 2011.

— A 2014 plea deal, resulting in prison time and millions of dollars in fines, between the government and an Iowa egg company and its executives. An outbreak of salmonella linked to the eggs sickened almost 2,000 people in 2010.

— A May 2015 settlement with ConAgra Foods for $11.2 million after the company shipped Peter Pan peanut butter tainted with salmonella from a plant in Georgia, sickening more than 600 people in 2006. That sum includes the highest criminal fine in a U.S. food safety case.

Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer who has represented victims in many of those cases, says Justice’s recent activity is especially notable because in many of the cases, company executives didn’t know they were shipping out tainted food, but they were hit with criminal charges anyway.

“It’s been very much of a sea change,” Marler said. “Once you start down this road you have to decide whether you are going to do it all the time or selectively.”

Seek and ye shall find: Listeria in ice cream

Blue Bell and Jeni’s, both ice cream manufacturers that trade on trust, community and faith, but not Listeria testing, are trying to learn science.

blue.bell.creameriesBlue Bell “hopes” to start test production in its Sylacauga, Alabama, facility in the next several weeks. “When production resumes at the Sylacauga plant, it will be on a limited basis as the company seeks to confirm that new procedures, facility enhancements and employee training have been effective,” the company stated in a press release. “Upon completion of this trial period, Blue Bell will begin building inventory to return to the market.”

Two hundred people attended an actual prayer vigil in the creameries’ hometown of Brenham, then in May, a Blue Bell black market began on Craigslist (one Dallas seller was asking $10,000 for a gallon of Caramel Turtle Cheesecake. With a bowl missing). And, of course, there was this: 

Mimi Swartz of Texas Monthly declared that “ice cream is Proustian.” It conjures up moments of childhood and family better than most foods. And I have have my own Blue Bell-specific memories – the old man gave up the more dangerous vices and he replaced them with one guilty pleasure, bought by the gallon and eaten by the bowl-full. That was childhood, though, and as Maw and Pops got older and more health-conscious, they switched to sorbet. Then they stopped with the sweets altogether. I shed no tears.

As homegrown and delicious as Blue Bell might be, it’s worth reviewing how the company created and responded to this catastrophe—a series of missteps that baffled legal and food safety experts. In May, the Houston Chronicle reported that Blue Bell found “strong evidence” of listeria in one of its Oklahoma factories in 2013, but failed to correct the issue. The Houston Press detailed the company’s “plant environmental testing plan” through a private lab. Although factory swabs were routinely tested for pathogens, Blue Bell only looked at areas that didn’t have contact with ice cream. 

Blue Bell further confounded experts with its first attempt at pulling the dangerous products. It initially tried to quietly remove products back in February before people started getting sick. Unlike a complete recall, these withdrawals don’t require public notice, a particularly scary thought considering the outbreak was linked to three deaths. From the Dallas Morning News

“With something like this, I don’t understand how they got away with doing a withdrawal,” said Cliff Coles, president of California Microbiological Consulting Inc. “Withdrawal is not nearly as strong of language as a recall. If you knew that you had listeria, why wasn’t it a recall?

If Blue Bell had tackled the problem head on, it could’ve meant drastically different results. As food safety lawyer Bill Marler noted in the Houston Press:

jenis-ice-cream-leadjpg-3107e469ad83e50e“If [Blue Bell executives] had been more transparent and forthcoming about this instead of trying to control the story and not commenting for so long, things might have been different, they might have saved jobs.”

Although Blue Bell Creameries might have started off as a humble, aw-shucks local operation, it is, at the end of the day, a business. And an ambitious one at that: It now sells its product in twenty states, has 3,900 employees (before the May layoff of 42 percent), and is the third-ranked ice cream company, nationally, with about $880 million in sales.

 Jeni’s ice cream will either lay off 40 production workers or find them jobs in its central Ohio scoop shops, said John Lowe, CEO, in a statement this afternoon. The company’s Michigan Avenue production kitchen has been idle for the past month after a second listeria positive.

Food safety indifference

When I repeat a breakout drill on the ice rink for 6-9-year-olds playing hockey – in Australia — I can see the parents rolling their eyes, yet the same parents marvel at the improvement when it comes to games.

powell.food.safe.indiffIt takes time. It takes effort. It takes fun.

I’ve been playing, coaching and sometimes administrating hockey for almost 50 years.

I’ve been playing, coaching and sometimes administrating microbial food safety things for 23 years (I’m old – two grandsons).

There’s not much difference.

Except one group is little kids trying to learn things, and the other is adults, paid money, who seem to want to make money.

And not learn.

Food safety indifference is the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my professoring or professional career: How to get people to care in the absence of an outbreak?

I’ve had the good fortune to work with industry types around the globe who recognized risk and were proactive – but it was really about trade, not fewer sick people.

indifferenceFrom Sara Lee in 1998 to Maple Leaf Foods in 2008 to Blue Bell today, companies act with shock and compassion when they find out they sickened people – in all these cases with Listeria — but a reflective glance is more critical.

They all had Listeria positives, but no one got sick yesterday, so the assumption is there’s a greater probability no one will get sick tomorrow.

Nice approach, until you get caught.

In Sept. 2014, 130 Canadians were sickened with E. coli O157 in pork.

Not the usual vehicle.

When a Canadian television station tried to do a follow-up in 2015, they were blocked by government and industry at every step.

Global News went through a years-long access-to-information process to obtain incident reports on E. coli found in Canadian food plants, most of it redacted.

How is it that 22 years after Jack-in-the-Box, North Americans seem to be adopting an attitude of indifference to food safety?

There’s lots of outbreaks, and communications research would suggest people are overloaded, so what’s a food safety type to do?

There is so much bad food safety advice that circulates in the PR-driven media, I’m not sure: How many years can anyone spend saying, you’re scientifically full of crap, stop it.

Food safety types need to persevere against the push for profit and stick with the message and the medium.

The best companies will do more than have manufactured soundbites about how food safety is their number 1 priority.

It doesn’t match up with reality, and food safety types, you’ll be needed sooner than you think.

Make food safety data public; market microbial food safety at retail; and repeat.

We won the game last week because the kids knew the drill, we’d practiced it, and we had fun.

Food safety should be the same.

Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety at the University of Guelph in Canada and Kansas State University in the U.S., who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.

dpowell29@gmail.com

0478 222 221

Listeria raw pet food recall…with a twist

Friend and fellow hockey aficionado, Scott Weese writes in his Worms & Germs Blog that the recent recall of Stella & Chewy’s products because of Listeria contamination is noteworthy.

stella.chewy'sWhy?

Because their food is treated with high pressure pasteurization (HPP). That’s a process that uses high pressure to destroy bacteria. My typical line is that I consider HPP-treated food to be similar to commercial cooked products in terms of risk of contamination and public health concerns. Yet, I add in the disclaimer that actual evidence of effectiveness on pet food seems to be limited. It makes sense that it would work; however, various factors impact the effectiveness of HPP so companies should have specific data that show their process works.

So, the big question here isn’t ‘why were bacteria in the food’? It’s raw, bacteria are common contaminants.

The question is ‘why were live bacteria in the food”? Figuring out how Listeria made it through processing is critically important. Hopefully there’s a real investigation into this.

There are a few main scenarios that I can come up with, and they vary greatly in their concern.

Post-treatment contamination: Careful review of the manufacturing process and testing (culture) of various environmental surfaces would typically be part of in investigation of this area. If this was the problem, things such as physical or procedural changes and more QC testing might be indicated.

Ineffective HPP: There could be two different scenarios.

-One is a breakdown in the process, with equipment problems, human error or some similar issue preventing an effective method from working. This is a problem but would presumably be fixable.

-The other (more concerning) one is that the procedure they use is not actually adequately effective.

Figuring out those is important to reduce the risk and help people make informed decisions about buying raw products.

Going public: Yes, Blue Bell sucks at risk analysis

Food safety experts, puzzling over the earliest days of Blue Bell Creameries’ response to a finding of listeria in some of its products, were confused.

blue.bell.scoopsIn mid-February, company workers began quietly reclaiming products from retailers and institutional customers such as hospitals. That was about a month before the iconic Texas-based ice-cream maker announced its first product recall in 108 years.

The stealth approach, called a withdrawal, came before any illness had been linked to the tainted ice cream. A withdrawal, which generally is used for minor problems, requires no broad notice to the public.

While the state health department called the withdrawal acceptable, some food safety experts are questioning why the public was not made aware of Blue Bell’s issues sooner.

“With something like this, I don’t understand how they got away with doing a withdrawal,” said Cliff Coles, president of California Microbiological Consulting Inc. “Withdrawal is not nearly as strong of language as a recall. If you knew that you had listeria, why wasn’t it a recall?

“I think they could have stepped up to the plate a whole lot quicker and done a whole lot more to protect the consuming public,” he added. “They pussyfooted around what they should have done in the first place.”

He and other food safety experts said they were unaware of any past cases in which a withdrawal, rather than a public recall, was used in a case in which a pathogen such as listeria was found in a ready-to-eat food.

Blue Bell, which first announced the listeria issue in a March 13 recall notice, has declined to go into detail about the withdrawal, citing pending litigation.

Blue Bell has been criticized for moving slowly to alert the public to the magnitude of its problem. The March 13 recall notice came as a terse, six-paragraph statement that pointed the finger at a specific production line that put out a “limited” amount of product. The release noted that “all products produced by this machine were withdrawn. Our Blue Bell team members recovered all involved products in stores and storage.”

listeria4Asked if that means 100 percent of the amount distributed was reclaimed, and that none of the product ended up in the hands of consumers, the company declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

That’s a key point. Food safety experts said a withdrawal would only be appropriate if the company could guarantee that it could account for 100 percent of the product that left the plant.

“Even if one [listeria-tainted] box was sold, at that point, the mechanism is no longer withdrawal,” said Mansour Samadpour, president of Seattle-based IEH Laboratories, a food consulting firm. “It has to be a recall. You have to announce it so anyone who purchased it would know not to consume it.”

“The key there is 100 percent,” he said.

In emailed answers to questions from The Dallas Morning News, Blue Bell challenged the notion that it did not move quickly enough to protect public health.

“From the moment we found out about a presumptive positive [listeria] test on February 13, we began working with regulators and immediately retrieved (we call this a withdrawal) the products that were on the market, which had been produced on a specific machine,” the company said. “That machine was already down for maintenance, so no more products were produced on that machine, and it has since been retired.

“As soon as we were notified on February 13, we notified FDA, and began instructing our employees to recover the products in question, which had been distributed to institutional and retail sales accounts,” the company said. “We went to those account locations and withdrew the products.”