It is embarrassing and deadly: Blue Bell working to get past Listeria contamination scare

Blue Bell Creameries will survive the crisis caused by a recent recall of products prompted by a finding of bacterial contamination in some of its products, but it will take a lot of work and a lot of money, experts said.

blue.bell.creameriesThe U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this month that three people in Texas had the same strain of listeria bacteria linked to some Blue Bell ice cream products previously found in five others at a Wichita, Kansas, hospital. Three of the five in Kansas died. That prompted the first recall in the family-owned creamery’s 108-year history, and some major retail and customer clients pulled all Blue Bell products from their offerings until they could be assured those products were safe.

Consultant Gene Grabowski, who has been a “crisis guru” to food manufacturers in about 150 recalls, has been advising the Brenham, Texas-based creamery, the Austin American-Statesman ( ) reported. Blue Bell, he said, has worked around the clock since the listeria concerns arose to identify and correct any contamination sources.

“This company cares more about the health and well-being of consumers than any company I’ve ever worked for,” he told the newspaper. “This is a company that’ always trying to do the right thing. This has been embarrassing for the family.”

Food safety nonsense from leading Toronto hospital

In 2008, Listeria in Maple Leaf cold-cuts killed 23 Canadians and sickened another 55.

listeria(4)(2)An outbreak of listeria in cheese in Quebec in fall 2008 led to 38 hospitalizations, of which 13 were pregnant and gave birth prematurely. Two adults died and there were 13 perinatal deaths.

A Sept. 2008 report showed that of the 78 residents of the Canadian province of British Columbia who contracted listeriosis in the past six years, 10 per cent were pregnant women whose infections put them at high risk of miscarriage or stillbirth.

The majority — nearly 60 per cent — of pregnant women diagnosed with listeriosis either miscarry or have stillbirths.

In the April 2010 edition of the journal, Canadian Family Physician, the Motherisk team at the previously reputable Toronto Hospital for Sick Children published a piece that said, without any references, that pregnant women need not avoid soft-ripened cheeses or deli meats, so long as they are consumed in moderation and obtained from reputable stores.”


Five years later, the hospital has finally decided to take action.

sick-kids.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxBut not because of bogus advice.

The Hospital for Sick Children has permanently discontinued hair drug and alcohol tests at its embattled Motherisk Drug Testing Laboratory after an internal review “further explored and validated” previous, and as yet undisclosed, “questions and concerns.”

The decision, announced on Friday, comes amid a Star investigation and mounting pressure from critics to shutter the lab, whose hair drug and alcohol tests have been used in criminal and child protection cases across the country, typically as evidence of parental substance abuse.

In March, Sick Kids temporarily suspended all non-research operations at Motherisk, after Lang’s review and the hospital’s review revealed new information, pending the results of Lang’s review, which are expected by June 30.

The hospital has declined to elaborate on the nature of that information. A hospital spokeswoman said on Friday that Sick Kids is not taking media inquiries.

Health Minister Eric Hoskins refused to answer questions on why there is so much secrecy surrounding the problems uncovered at Motherisk and instead issued a statement by email about Lang’s review.

“The independent review is ongoing and we have confidence in the work that is being carried out by the Honourable Susan Lang,” he said.

Sick Kids recently temporarily reassigned medical oversight of Motherisk, which also counsels pregnant women on which medications are safe to take, amid questions from the Star about the ties between Motherisk director and founder Gideon Koren and the drug company Duchesnay.

The questions related to the lack of disclosure of the funding Motherisk receives from Duchesnay in a booklet for pregnant women co-written by Koren and featured on the Motherisk website, which heavily promotes the use of Duchesnay’s drug Diclectin to treat morning sickness.

It’s all about trade: CFIA sucks at communication

In 1997, I co-wrote a book called Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk, which included a chapter about how the newly formed Canadian Food Inspection Agency sucked at communication and enforcement regarding bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

mad.cows.mother's.milkA few years later, when Canada had its first case of mad cow disease, the chief vet was proactive, and consumption of beef actually rose.

But when the Maple Leaf listeriosis outbreak killed 23 in 2008, CFIA was left castrated.

It was probably a political thing.

Kelsey Johnson, a reporter with iPolitics, writes in Canada’s Western Producer that there is nothing more frustrating for a journalist than the inability to get basic information for a story from official channels, particularly at the federal level.

The relationship between the federal government and the Parliamentary Press Gallery is especially strained, one that is unlikely to improve much in the coming months thanks to the rapidly approaching federal election.

Which is why the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s communication response to the single case of H5N2 avian flu in Ontario has been a pleasant surprise.

The CFIA’s last communications effort, which had been prompted by a leak that revealed a case of BSE had been found on an Alberta farm in February, received heavy criticism from some reporters, including yours truly.

In that particular case, obtaining basic information such as the location of the index farm and the birth farm, was like pulling teeth. The agency’s initial plan was to not make the case public until its monthly reporting period in March, a policy that CFIA and the cattle industry insist is simply standard practice.

RS64This time around CFIA appears to have amended its communication strategy.

Reporters were first informed of the single case of avian flu April 7 through a CFIA news release that was sent to the entire Parliamentary Press Gallery. That in itself is an improvement over the BSE case, when the agency put out a response but didn’t send it to the gallery’s main email, which frustrated several reporters who were unaware of the CFIA’s response.

Kelsey, it’s all about trade.

And while is only 20-years-old, the Rolling Stones released their first album, 51 years ago today (thank you, Buddy Holly).


Inspections and audits are never enough: Blue Bell Listeria-in-ice-cream version

Days after a foodborne illness was linked to Blue Bell ice cream products, a state inspection of an Oklahoma plant later tied to the infection praised the facility for having no violations and doing a “great job,” according to a copy of the inspection report.

listeria4Inspectors had no reason to check for listeria during the routine March 18 review as no problems were detected and the facility didn’t have a history of issues linked to the illness, said Stan Stromberg, director of the food safety division for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry..

“With an organism like listeria, you cannot do a visual inspection,” Stromberg said on Thursday.

Tainted Blue Bell ice cream products have sickened eight people — five in Kansas and three in Texas. Three of the five in Kansas have died and health officials there say listeria, also known as listeriosis, might have been a contributing factor in the deaths.

In the one-page report about the Oklahoma plant, provided to The Associated Press in response to an open records request, an inspector wrote “No Violations Observed!” and “Keep it up!”

Once again, most food safety is faith-based. At the market or the megalomart, mere mortals have no idea whether that lettuce or tomato or ice cream was raised in a microbiologically-aware environment. With each outbreak, more consumers are losing their religion.

Me, along with Ben Chapman, now an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, and Katija Morley (nee Blaine), who’s still busy with fruit and veg in Canada, have been doing the on-farm stuff for over 15 years and dealing with retailers and audits. But it was the January 2009 outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium linked to the Peanut Corporation of America that killed 9 people and sickened at least 714, when we decided we should organize our thoughts.

Because there wasn’t much in the peer-reviewed literature.

And we’re sorta big on the science stuff.

We also try to be credible, so I invited a few others to share their expertise. Dodd serves in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps and I had the fortunate opportunity to interact with Chuck while he was doing a PhD at Kansas State. He was most recently based in Germany and now in North Carolina. He’s seen a lot.

Roy Costa is a decent guitar player who is well-respected in food safety circles for his auditing prowess and incisive commentary.

Sol has worked with me for a shorter time, but her perspective as a graduate student in psychology at K-State has always been welcomed.

Together, we came out with a paper we could all (mostly) agree with and got it published. The main points are:

  • food safety audits and inspections are a key component of the nation’s food safety system and their use will expand in the future, for both domestic and imported foodstuffs., but recent failures can be emotionally, physically and financially devastating to the victims and the businesses involved;
  • many outbreaks involve firms that have had their food production systems verified and received acceptable ratings from food safety auditors or government inspectors;
  • while inspectors and auditors play an active role in overseeing compliance, the burden for food safety lies primarily with food producers;
  • there are lots of limitations with audits and inspections, just like with restaurants inspections, but with an estimated 48 million sick each year in the U.S., the question should be, how best to improve food safety?
  • audit reports are only useful if the purchaser or  food producer reviews the results, understands the risks addressed by the standards and makes risk-reduction decisions based on the results;
  • there appears to be a disconnect between what auditors provide (a snapshot) and what buyers believe they are doing (a full verification or certification of product and process);
  • third-party audits are only one performance indicator and need to be supplemented with microbial testing, second-party audits of suppliers and the in-house capacity to meaningfully assess the results of audits and inspections;
  • companies who blame the auditor or inspector for outbreaks of foodborne illness should also blame themselves;
  • assessing food-handling practices of staff through internal observations, externally-led evaluations, and audit and inspection results can provide indicators of a food safety culture; and,
  • the use of audits to help create, improve, and maintain a genuine food safety culture holds the most promise in preventing foodborne illness and safeguarding public health.


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.

Seek and ye shall find: Multistate outbreak of listeriosis linked to Blue Bell Creameries products

As Blue Bell ice cream thingies recalled more products, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced that eight people are now sick – including three dead — and that this is a complex and ongoing multistate outbreak of listeriosis occurring over an extended period.

listeria4Recent testing of product samples from the Blue Bell Creameries Oklahoma production facility identified Listeria monocytogenes strains in product sold at retail that were not included in the previous two recalls, including a pint of banana pudding ice cream.

On April 3, 2015, Blue Bell Creameries reported that they had voluntarily suspended operations at the Oklahoma production facility.

On April 4, 2015, Blue Bell Creameries began working with retailers to remove all products made in the Oklahoma production facility from the market.

On April 7, 2015, Blue Bell Creameries announced a third product recall that includes banana pudding ice cream pints and other products made on the same production line in the Oklahoma production facility from February 12, 2015 to

Today’s USA Today has a greatest hits of Listeria outbreaks, as well as a brief summary of why Listeria shows up and can be deadly.

As a food safety father of five daughters, Listeria is one of the things that always entered into food decisions.

Predictive models to estimate Listeria spp. growth on baby spinach leaves

Leafy vegetables such as spinach may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes during pre-harvest and postharvest management.

listeria.spinachRecent Listeriosis outbreaks associated to contaminated leafy vegetables have marked the need for technologies to minimize safety issues in fresh and fresh-cut produce.

US scientists at Texas A&M University have studied the effectiveness of washing treatments as a postharvest practice to minimize the growth of the pathogen and L. innocua on fresh baby spinach leaves under different storage temperatures and to evaluate the feasibility of using L. innocua as a surrogate to the pathogen. The objectives of the study were:

1. to determine the response of L. monocytogenes and L. innocua to different washing treatments with or without chlorine (200 mg/L) at room temperature (∼22°C);

2. to assess the effect of natural microbiota load on growth of both microorganisms at different storage temperatures, from 5 to 36°C;

3. to validate the use of L. innocua as a surrogate of L. monocytogenes for further studies with fresh baby spinach leaves.

Scientists developed predictive models to investigate the effect of simulated storage temperature on the growth patterns of L. monocytogenes and L. innocua.

Results showed that each microorganism had a different significant response to the type of washing treatment at room temperature and the pathogen was harder to remove from the leaves than the L. innocua was.

Although, the natural microflora on fresh baby spinach leaves affected the growth parameters (Maximum grow rate, lag time, maximum population density) for both bacteria, the effect was not significant. Thus, in the specific case of spinach leaves, the study shows that L. innocua may be a suitable surrogate for L. monocytogenes in growth studies.

Growth data for L. monocytogenes and L. innocua on fresh baby spinach leaves at 5–36 °C were modelled using the Baranyi and Ratkowsky (secondary) models which were validated by comparing the root mean square error (RMSEs) and biases between the growth data and model predictions. The secondary models showed good agreement between observed and predicted values.

The validation results show that these models could provide reliable estimates for growth of L. monocytogenes and L. innocua as a function of temperature. These models may be used by processors to evaluate the impact of postharvest practices such as storage and washing on the growth of Listeria in baby spinach leaves evaluated in this study. These models can provide useful input to quantitative risk assessment models.

Basri Omac, Rosana G. Moreira, Alejandro Castillo, Elena Castell-Perez, “Growth of Listeria monocytogenes and Listeria innocua on fresh baby spinach leaves: Effect of storage temperature and natural microflora”, 2015, Postharvest Biology and Technology, Vol. 100, 41–51.

Blue Bell suspending operations at its Broken Arrow facility after Listeria outbreak

Blue Bell Creameries has voluntarily stopped operations at its manufacturing plant in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, so it can be inspected to determine out how some ice cream products recently were contaminated with listeria.

blue-bell-ice-cream-cups-450pxWe are taking this step out of an abundance of caution to ensure that we are doing everything possible to provide our consumers with safe products and to preserve the trust we have built with them and their families for more than a century,” said the company in a release.

The shut-down comes not long after listeria monocytogenes was found on a chocolate ice cream cup that was produced at the Broken Arrow plant on April 15, 2014, and recovered from a hospital in Wichita, Kansas.

Soybean sprouts recalled because of Listeria risk

Henry’s Farm Inc. of Woodford, VA is recalling all packages of soybean sprouts because they may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections to individuals with weakened immune systems.

list.sproutsThe contamination was discovered after sampling by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Food Safety Program and subsequent analysis by the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services revealed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in the products. No illness has been reported to date.

Canada says Canada is best at food safety, but inspectors don’t have CSI goggles to see bacteria: Leaked documents contradict CFIA claims, as Lilydale recall grows

Not sure what’s going on in Canada, but consumer confidence in food safety should be questionable.

rick.holleyLeaked documents appear to contradict statements by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s top bureaucratd that oversight at meat processing plants in Alberta has not been reduced as the federal watchdog grapples with staff shortages and tight budgets.

In a tersely worded release issued in the aftermath of this week’s allegations by meat inspectors that the frequency of some checks have been cut in half at facilities in the northern half of the province, CFIA-president-and-former-Guelph-squash-player Bruce Archibald said the union’s claims  were false and unnecessarily undermined Canadian confidence in their food safety system.

But an internal strategy document obtained by the Calgary Herald shows the agency had plans in to reduce the daily presence of inspectors in plants and the frequency of some of their tasks by up to 50 per cent starting in early January of this year.

While inspectors would still visit plants that export to the U.S. every day to ensure compliance with that country’s standards, the strategy shows facilities that produced solely for the Canadian market would now only see an inspector three days a week.

“Processing group will not be able to complete work as per program design,” the document said.

“With reduced inspector presence at establishments, the CVS (compliance verification system) must be reduced.”

Agency officials did not respond to a request to interview Archibald about the apparent contradiction between his comments and the detailed strategy outlined in the December document that inspectors union president Bob Kingston says was implemented on January 5 as planned by CFIA managers.

“We have bent over backwards to be factually correct about what’s happening and our members get pretty upset when the head of the CFIA calls them liars,” Kingston said in an interview.

“This is not about protecting  jobs, but about whether the agency has the resources it needs to ensure the safety of  food on Canadian kitchen tables and store shelves.”

The controversy over the inspection cuts in Alberta – made as CFIA grappled with a $43.3 million reduction in annual budget for food safety and with the prospect of more financial pain next year – comes as the agency deals with a growing recall of products from one of the plants where oversight has been reduced in recent months.

patrick.stewartThe agency’s inspectors were busy Thursday pulling potentially tainted turkey made by Lilydale Inc. from store shelves across the country, a week after warning consumers that chicken from the company’s plant in Edmonton could be contaminated with the same Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.

CFIA said the suspect products were produced on a range of dates, but officials indicated they all appear to have been manufactured on the same line.

The recalls were triggered by positive results from testing of swabs of equipment in the plant and finished product made within a specific time frame, the agency said.

Officials did not directly answer a Herald query as to whether a CFIA inspector was at the plant on all the days when the recalled product was manufactured.

But they did say an inspector was present on March 10, one of the production days in question, when checks were done before the line began operating.

Rick Holley, a food safety expert at the University of Manitoba who advised the government during the deadly Maple Leaf Foods listeria outbreak in 2008, said that recent spikes in listeria outbreaks in processed meats have made him concerned that the meat industry is slacking in its sanitation practices.

“If we let our guard down, I think we’re just asking for trouble,” he said.

Holley said there are five times as many food recalls due to listeria contamination this year than the year before. To come to that conclusion, he analyzed data on food recalls from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and found that in the first three months of 2015, 44 per cent were due to listeria contamination.

Only 9 per cent of recalls during all of 2014 were because of listeria, he said. What concerned him most, he said, was that the listeria outbreak was largely coming from cooked meat and fish products, which means that the bacteria was probably introduced during packaging.

The CFIA boasted in its statement that the Conference Board of Canada has rated Canada’s food safety system number 1 out of 17 OECD countries. This statistic comes from a report co-authored by Sylvain Charlebois, a professor at the University of Guelph. Charlebois said that there is no magic number of food inspectors that will guarantee food safety.

Holly disagreed with his methods, and said it is difficult to compare information across countries.

Rick knows food safety.

Oh dear: USDA is now using steaming hot as a scientific standard

Robber’s Roost Jerky, an Ellensburg, Wash., establishment, is recalling approximately 4 pounds of ready-to-eat smoked beef and pork pepper stick jerky product that may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today.

beefjerky406The problem was discovered by the company after a sample from the cutting board used in preparation of the product returned a positive test result for Listeria monocytogenes. FSIS and the company have received no reports of illness due to consumption of this product.

 FSIS advises all consumers to reheat ready-to-eat product until steaming hot.

I use a tip-sensitive digital thermometer on shrimp; the variation is fascinating.