Careful how you cut the cheese

Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2073/2005 established, as a food safety criterion for tolerable levels of Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods which do not support the growth of the pathogen or with shelf life below 5 days, a maximum of 100 cfu g−1.

Gorgonzola cheeseBlue-veined cheeses are among these foods because their rinds can be contaminated, and the pathogen can be transferred to the paste during slicing.

The aim of this research was to investigate whether cutting procedures could be responsible for cheese paste contamination.

Considering that the Commission Regulation limit is allowed when the pathogen does not grow during the shelf life, we also wanted to verify whether, in the case of positive dragging, L. monocytogenes was able to grow on cut slices beyond the limit imposed, thereby becoming a risk for consumers during storage at 4 °C.

Gorgonzola cheese was chosen for this investigation. The cutting simulation on artificially inoculated wheel rinds indicated that greater rind contamination corresponded to a higher percentage of contaminated paste samples.

The growth of L. monocytogenes transferred to cut slices was variable relative to the physicochemical characteristics of the cheese, to the contamination level and to the time of storage. In particular, the sweet typology was able to support the growth of L. monocytogenes in the shelf life conditions considered and the quick overcoming of the limit imposed by food safety criteria would not ensure the safety for consumption.

 Cutting procedures might be responsible for Listeria monocytogenes contamination of foods: The case of Gorgonzola cheese

Food Control, Volume 61, March 2016, Pages 54–61

Valentina Bernini, Elena Dalzini, Camilla Lazzi, Benedetta Bottari, Monica Gatti, Erasmo Neviani

Fortune looks at the business of food safety and Blue Bell

Powell has often used the term, making people sick is bad for business; or as Fortune Magazine alliterates, the food industry has a $55.5 billion problem. Peter Elkend and Beth Kowitt of Fortune published sister pieces on the intersection of food safety and business focusing on Blue Bell’s recent listeria outbreak and re-entry to the marketplace.

Kowitt writes,

Food-borne illness is a giant, expensive challenge for companies big and small—and the surprise is, their exposure to the risk (and the liability when linked to an outbreak) is arguably bigger than ever. “Thirty years ago if you had a little problem, you were not going to get discovered,” says David Acheson, former associate commissioner for foods at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who today runs a consulting firm. “Now the chances of getting caught are significant, and it can be the end of your company.”acf7763f-9190-4bd1-8e69-ae99293596d0

For instance, since 2006 investigators have fingered a bacterial strain called E. coli O157:H7 (at one time widely thought to be found only in meats) in bags of baby spinach, in hazelnuts, and in cookie dough. They’ve identified botulism in pasteurized carrot juice and found salmonella in peanut butter, ground pepper, jalapeño peppers, Turkish pine nuts, and pistachios. They’ve discovered hepatitis A virus in pomegranate seeds; cyclospora in bagged salad mix; and Listeria monocytogenes in ice cream.

“I’m skeptical that these are new connections,” says Ben Chapman, associate professor of food safety at North Carolina State University, who runs a website called the Barfblog (I meant new pathogen/food contamination -ben). “It’s stuff that’s always been there, and now we’re looking for it.” That would help explain why FDA-regulated food recalls have more than doubled over the past decade, to 565 last year, according to insurance company Swiss Re—with nearly half related to microbiological contamination. In interviews with more than 30 experts, nearly all said the rise in recalls was less an indicator of deteriorating food safety than it was of our improving capacity to connect the dots between foods and microbes.

Molecular techniques (PFGE to whole genome sequencing) also get a shout out from friend of barfblog, Linda Harris.

Up until the 1990s, most outbreaks we found were in the same geographic location—the church picnic where everyone eats the same bad potato salad and calls in sick the next day. Then new technology enabled scientists to determine the various DNA fingerprints of food-borne bacteria, which were uploaded into a common database. Investigators were suddenly able to link disparate cases of illness by finding bacterial matches. “It revolutionized outbreak investigation,” says Linda Harris, a microbiologist in the department of food science and technology at the University of California at Davis.

Whole genome sequencing is the biggest advance I’ve seen in my 15 years in food safety.

In the Blue Bell piece, Peter Eklund writes,

The episode reveals not only how difficult it is to trace the source of food-borne illness but also what happens when a company is slow to tackle the causes—and doesn’t come clean with its customers. Experts say Blue Bell’s responses this year were an example of “recall creep.” That occurs when executives hope that taking limited action—as the company did five times when informed of findings of listeria—will solve the problem and minimize commercial damage, only to find themselves forced to expand the recall repeatedly. It’s the opposite of Johnson & Johnson’s actions in the 1982 Tylenol-tampering episode, when the brand famously saved its reputation by swiftly recalling every bottle of the medication.

blue-bell-ice-cream-600Eklund and I spoke a lot about Blue Bell’s sharing of information specifics, which I’ve criticized as lacking. When a company is linked to illnesses and deaths and they say stuff like ‘food safety is important to us’ or ‘we’re going to step up what we are doing around microbiolgical sampling, cleaning and sanitation’ or ‘we’re hiring the best’ it often lacks substance. Sure, tell folks what you are doing but more important is pulling back the curtain on how many samples, what they are looking for, how they determined where and what to look for and what they are going to do if they find an issue. That’s what we mean by marketing food safety.

But Eklund quotes Gene Grabowski, a PR consultant involved in Blue Bell’s response as playing the we’re sorry and trust us game,

“In my playbook, you apologize sincerely once and then you move on.” (He has been supplanted by a team from PR giant Burson-Marsteller led by Karen Hughes, who served as a top White House communications adviser to George W. Bush.) “Had the company known then what it knows now,” Grabowski says, “it would have done a full recall of all products earlier than it did.”

Two decades into the world of online discussions, immediate news exchange, and Twitter flame wars and some are still sadly following the apologize and move on approach.

Food Safety Talk 80: Literally the hummus I’m eating

Food Safety Talk, a bi-weekly podcast for food safety nerds, by food safety nerds. The podcast is hosted by Ben Chapman and barfblog contributor Don Schaffner, Extension Specialist in Food Science and Professor at Rutgers University. Every two weeks or so, Ben and Don get together virtually and talk for about an hour.  They talk about what’s on their minds or in the news regarding food safety, and popular culture. They strive to be relevant, funny and informative — sometimes they succeed. You can download the audio recordings right from the website, or subscribe using iTunes.1442690399236

The show opens with a discussion of Don’s mic stand and quickly segues into “Linda’s Famous Cigar Story”, and Ben’s annual pollen throat. After a discussion of their various ailments, Don wishes Ben an almost 37th birthday.

Ben is currently expecting a new macbook, which was discussed on Episode 116 of the Talk Show. Don shares his recent experiences looking at Apple Watch in the Apple Store, and his preference for the Milanese Loop and his new burr grinder and aeropress.

When the talk turns to food safety, Ben talks about his work with Family & Consumer Sciences in North Carolina, (called Family and Community Health Sciences at Rutgers University) and how Ben has recently changed his training practices from classroom lecture to supermarket and restaurant inspection field trips based on inspiration from Dara Bloom.

This inspires Don to talk about the work he’s doing to help documentary film makers doing a story on shelf life dating of foods especially milk. Ben shares some of the myths circulating about expired milk including this bogus article from Livestrong, and the work he’s doing on expired food and food pantries.

From there the discussion moves to other shelf life myths including the egg float or shake tests, and why they are bogus, as well as places to go for good egg information, because someone on the Internet will always be wrong.

The discussion turns to recalled hummus recall messaging and Ben’s post hockey snacking tips.

As the guys wrap up the show they briefly talk about Blue Bell ice cream and the doses of Listeria that might have made people sick and the future of food safety given the advances in molecular biology, clinical microbiology and whole genome sequencing. Ben shares some final thoughts on Salmonella in spices and how whole genome sequencing might impact that industry too.

In the brief after dark, Ben and Don talk about yoga, and getting healthy, the Turing Test, and the new Star Wars movie trailer.

1 dead, 1 fetal death, 23 sick from Listeria in soft cheese

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 24 people infected with a closely related Listeria strain have been reported from nine states since August 8, 2010.

karoun.dairiesTwenty-one people were hospitalized. Five illnesses were pregnancy-related; one resulted in a fetal loss. One death was reported from Ohio.

Additional illnesses are under investigation.

The investigation has not conclusively identified the source of this outbreak, but most ill people interviewed reported eating soft cheese before becoming ill. This investigation is ongoing.

Eighteen (82%) of the 22 ill people with available information reported eating soft cheeses in the month before becoming ill.

Four (57%) of seven ill people who specified a brand of cheese reported brands distributed by Karoun Dairies. No other brand of cheese was reported more than once.

On September 16, 2015, Karoun Dairies, Inc. voluntarily recalled[PDF – 2 pages] and ceased production of certain cheeses that the company distributes due to possible contamination with Listeria.

Products were sold under the following brands: Karoun, Arz, Gopi, Queso Del Valle, Central Valley Creamery, and Yanni.

listeria4Products are vacuum packed, in jars or in pails. Weights vary from 5 ounces to 30 pounds.

A full list of cheeses is available on the Advice to Consumers, Restaurants, and Retailers page.

Consumers should not eat, restaurants should not serve, and retailers should not sell recalled cheeses. These products may be contaminated with Listeria and may make people sick.

Updates will be provided when more information is available.

Initial Announcement

CDC is collaborating with public health officials in several states and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to investigate a multistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infections (listeriosis). Listeria can cause a serious, life-threatening illness.

Public health investigators are using the PulseNet system to identify illnesses that may be part of this outbreak. PulseNet is the national subtyping network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories coordinated by CDC. DNA “fingerprinting” is performed on Listeria bacteria isolated from ill people by using techniques called pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and whole genome sequencing (WGS). PulseNet manages a national database of these DNA fingerprints to identify possible outbreaks. WGS gives a more detailed DNA fingerprint than PFGE. In the current outbreak, this additional detail was important. Five rare PFGE fingerprints of Listeria are included in this investigation. The sequencing showed that the Listeria strains with the five rare PFGE fingerprints are closely related genetically.

Twenty-four people infected with one of the closely related Listeria strains have been reported from nine states since August 8, 2010. The number of ill people reported from each state is as follows: California (14), Colorado (1), Illinois (1), Massachusetts (2), Michigan (1), New York (2), Ohio (1), Tennessee (1), and Washington (1).

Dates of Listeria specimen collection range from August 8, 2010 to August 24, 2015. The cluster was first identified in August 2015 after investigators saw an increase in one of the five rare PFGE  fingerprints reported to PulseNet. WGS found that the four other PFGE fingerprints were closely related genetically to the first PFGE fingerprint. Illnesses associated with those PFGE fingerprints were added to the investigation, including illnesses that occurred over 5 years ago. Additional illnesses are under investigation.

Ill people range in age from less than 1 year to 92, and the median age is 77. Seventy-five percent of ill people are female. Twenty-one (91%) of 23 ill people for whom information is available reported being hospitalized. Five of the illnesses were pregnancy-related, and one illness resulted in a fetal loss. One death was reported from Ohio.

The investigation has not conclusively identified the source of this outbreak, but most ill people interviewed reported eating soft cheese before becoming ill. The investigation is ongoing.

State and local health departments are interviewing ill people about the foods they may have eaten or other exposures in the month before their illness began. Fifteen (63%) of 24 people with available information are of Middle Eastern or Eastern European descent or shopped at Middle Eastern-style markets. Of 22 ill people for whom information is available, 18 (82%) consumed soft cheeses, and 16 (89%) reported eating Middle Eastern, Eastern European, Mediterranean, or Mexican-style cheeses, including ani, feta (including Bulgarian feta), Middle Eastern-style string cheese, and nabulsi. Four (57%) of seven ill people who specified the brand of cheese eaten reported brands distributed by Karoun Dairies. No other brand of cheese was reported more than once.

On September 16, 2015, Karoun Dairies, Inc. voluntarily recalled and ceased production of certain cheeses that the company distributes due to possible contamination with Listeria. The recall includes several brands and types of cheeses that were distributed to retail outlets in the United States. Products were sold under the following brands: Karoun, Arz, Gopi, Queso Del Valle, Central Valley Creamery, and Yanni. Products are vacuum packed, in jars or in pails. Weights vary from 5 ounces to 30 pounds. A full list of cheeses is available on the Advice to Consumers, Restaurants, and Retailers page.

CDC and state and local public health partners are continuing laboratory surveillance through PulseNet to identify additional ill people and to interview them. Updates will be provided when more information is available.

Blue Bell may be down homey, but dragged its feet on Listeria outbreak

According to an editorial in The Wichita Eagle, when a food manufacturer learns from health officials that its product is tainted with a pathogen, and confirms the contamination itself, surely it should halt production until the problem is fixed and recall the affected products right away.

blue.bell.jul.15Yet a Houston Chronicle investigative report on the listeria outbreak linked to Blue Bell ice cream earlier this year indicated the company took its time to do both.

That’s troubling news especially in Wichita, as five patients at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis for unrelated conditions became ill from eating Blue Bell ice cream and three died, The Eagle reported in March. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the three deaths among 10 infected patients in four states were those in Kansas.

Focusing on a machine nicknamed “Gram” that ran nearly around the clock at the plant in Brenham, Texas, the Chronicle reported: “On Feb. 13, health officials alerted Blue Bell that they had discovered the pathogen in random samples. On Feb. 19 and 21, Blue Bell’s own tests discovered (Listeria) monocytogenes in drains connected to the freezer on the Gram line. But the company did not change its practices, which had thus far failed to eliminate the bacteria, FDA records show. On March 9, Blue Bell learned of a potential link between Kansas hospital illnesses and individually packaged ice cream, produced on Gram. On March 10, it stopped using the machine. Three days later, it issued the first in a line of recalls: everything made on Gram.”

If Blue Bell Creameries is the worst-case scenario, the majority of food manufacturers operate safely, of course, recognizing that food safety isn’t just crucial for public health but essential to stay in business.

Tumbling dice: Safety sacrificed for profits say former Blue Bell employees

It’s a familiar tale.

SafetySignsProductivity may go down so safety corners are cut.

According to a feature in The Houston Chronicle, Benjamin Ofori sometimes watched a mush of strawberries and pecans flow into an ice cream tank even after his production line at Blue Bell had been scrubbed.

Low water pressure and temperature hampered Sabien Colvin’s cleanup efforts at the plant.

Another employee saw a steady drip, day after day, from a dirty air vent onto Fudge Bombstiks.

They say they all complained to supervisors.

Ofori also groused about a bypassed safety feature on his line. Later, that machine severed three of Colvin’s fingers.

In interviews with the Houston Chronicle, more than a dozen former employees of Blue Bell’s flagship Brenham plant described a company fighting to keep up with its growing customer base while sanitation and safety slipped. Cleanup workers regularly ran out of hot water, making machinery susceptible to pathogens and allergens. Reused packaging brought grime into the factory. Equipment went without safeguards for years, and several workers lost parts of one or more fingers.

The 14 employees have a combined 213 years of experience on the production lines. Their accounts are bolstered by the limited information reported by the Food and Drug Administration, including details about a contaminated machine that kept cranking out products even as a listeria crisis deepened. They’re also backed by an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation that blasted the company for failing to protect workers.

Blue Bell officials would not agree to an interview to discuss the ex-employees’ assessments of their operation. Spokesman Joe Robertson offered a one-paragraph response.

“We are a family at Blue Bell and we have always valued all of our employees and want them to feel safe and enjoy working here,” he said via email. “Our employees are our company’s greatest asset and many have spent their entire careers with us. Workplace safety, sanitation, and employee training remain our highest priorities as we continuously work to improve.”

Blue Bell attained a frozen empire with a story of idyllic country roots, old-fashioned values and quality ingredients.

But since 2010, tainted Blue Bell products sickened at least 13 people, including three who died after being hospitalized with other illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Findings by the FDA and a private laboratory showed sanitation failures at Brenham extended to plants in Oklahoma and Alabama.

Nationwide, regulators and ice cream companies are rethinking long-held assumptions about cleaning and product testing.

The full story is a good read.

Another raw milk review, another catalogue of (unnecessary) risks

This review concentrates on information concerning microbiological hazards possibly present in raw milk dairy products, in particular cheese, butter, cream and buttermilk.

colbert.raw.milkThe main microbiological hazards of raw milk cheeses (especially soft and fresh cheeses) are linked to Listeria monocytogenes, verocytotoxin-producing Escherichia coli (VTEC), Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella and Campylobacter. L. monocytogenes, VTEC and S. aureus have been identified as microbiological hazards in raw milk butter and cream albeit to a lesser extent because of a reduced growth potential compared with cheese. In endemic areas, raw milk dairy products may also be contaminated with Brucella spp., Mycobacterium bovis and the tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV). Potential risks due to Coxiella burnetii and Mycobacterium avium subsp. paratuberculosis (MAP) are discussed.

Pasteurisation ensures inactivation of vegetative pathogenic microorganisms, which increases the safety of products made thereof compared with dairy products made from raw milk. Several control measures from farm to fork are discussed.

 A review of the microbiological hazards of dairy products made from raw milk

International Dairy Journal. November 2015 vol. 50 pgs. 32-44

Verraes, G. Vlaemynck, S. Van Weyenberg, L. De Zutter, G. Daube, M. Sindic, M. Uyttendaele, and L. Herman

Jeni’s ice cream back after Listeria positives, changes

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams LLC is reopening its production kitchen, but it no longer will be making its ice cream.

jenis-ice-creamThe Columbus-based ice cream maker’s facility at 909 Michigan Ave. will now be used to handle and prepare ingredients, but final production of its products will continue to be done by Orrville-based Smith Dairy, which has been making the company’s ice cream since the production kitchen closed for a second time back in June.

The company declined to answer questions about its new production process at this time.

(Note to self: building trust requires transparency).

Ingredients from farms will be processed in a kitchen separate from the production facility. Produce will not move into the production kitchen until it has been cleaned, peeled, shucked or hulled in that first kitchen.

The production kitchen will still prepare certain ingredients because it has the specialized equipment to do so.

Ingredients then will be transported to Smith Diary, which supplies Jeni’s with its grass-grazed milk and cream, and will be mixed with dairy and frozen into ice cream there.

Every batch will be tested for listeria and other bacteria before going to the public.

The company will continue to handle all of its own research and development and ingredient sourcing, as it was doing prior to the shutdowns.

After Listeria, Jeni’s Splendid founder calls for more industry self-regulation

From the duh files.

Listeria contamination last spring at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams taught company founder Jeni Britton Bauer one lesson: The food industry can’t rely solely on state and federal inspectors to protect consumers.

listeria4The industry also needs to take an active role.

“What has to change is how businesses view our responsibilities,” Bauer said Thursday during what was billed as a “true confessions” talk at Lowcountry Local First’s Good Business Summit in Charleston.

“Do we rely on their periodics (inspections)? Do we rely on our health inspectors any more?” Bauer said. “Absolutely no. Because we know that they are not experts in food safety, they are experts in the law and those are totally different things.

 “The responsibility is on business … to make healthy things, to keep people healthy.”

What Bauer didn’t know at the time, she said, was that the FDA had known about the Listeria problem long before it went public.

“They knew about it for like three weeks, crazy, before it ever got to us, which is very weird,” Bauer said.

FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said she could not immediately verify if that timeline was accurate. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture is the agency that discovered the contamination and officials from that agency have declined to say when the sample was collected.

Been there. Done that.

Audits and inspections are never enough: A critique to enhance food safety


Food Control

D.A. Powell, S. Erdozain, C. Dodd, R. Costa, K. Morley, B.J. Chapman


Internal and external food safety audits are conducted to assess the safety and quality of food including on-farm production, manufacturing practices, sanitation, and hygiene. Some auditors are direct stakeholders that are employed by food establishments to conduct internal audits, while other auditors may represent the interests of a second-party purchaser or a third-party auditing agency. Some buyers conduct their own audits or additional testing, while some buyers trust the results of third-party audits or inspections. Third-party auditors, however, use various food safety audit standards and most do not have a vested interest in the products being sold. Audits are conducted under a proprietary standard, while food safety inspections are generally conducted within a legal framework. There have been many foodborne illness outbreaks linked to food processors that have passed third-party audits and inspections, raising questions about the utility of both. Supporters argue third-party audits are a way to ensure food safety in an era of dwindling economic resources. Critics contend that while external audits and inspections can be a valuable tool to help ensure safe food, such activities represent only a snapshot in time. This paper identifies limitations of food safety inspections and audits and provides recommendations for strengthening the system, based on developing a strong food safety culture, including risk-based verification steps, throughout the food safety system.

US apple industry questions FDA’s response on caramel apple outbreak

Tom Karst of The Packer writes that in a presentation to the U.S. Apple Association’s Outlook and Marketing Conference Aug. 20, the Food and Drug Administration’s Roberta Wagner took questions from the audience about pending food safety rules and the fallout from the foodborne illness outbreak in late 2014 linked to Listeria monocytogenes in caramel apples.

caramel.appleOne audience member asked Wagner, associate director for Food Safety Modernization Act Operations at FDA, about the agency’s unclear messages about whether whole apples were involved. He asked her if whole fresh apples were implicated in the outbreak.

“I can tell you the statistic we are showing are only for caramel apples,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35 people were sickened, 34 hospitalized and three died as a result of the outbreak linked to caramel apples.

“One of the research areas we need to (address) is why caramel apples and not apples?” she said.

Another conference attendee noted that foreign governments blocked imports of whole fresh apples.

“What is the FDA going to do so we hopefully curb that in the future?” he said.

Wagner said the FDA can’t control actions by other governments, but that the FDA will work with agriculture officials in other countries to defuse any concerns.