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.

Microbial-based recalls of organic food on the rise

New data collected by Stericycle, a company that handles recalls for businesses, shows a sharp jump in the number of recalls of organic food products, according to a story in the N.Y. Times.

organic-manure1Organic food products accounted for 7 percent of all food units recalled so far this year, compared with 2 percent of those recalled last year, according to data from the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture that Stericycle uses to compile its quarterly report on recalls.

In 2012 and 2013, only 1 percent of total units of food recalled were organic.

Kevin Pollack, a vice president at Stericycle, said the growing consumer and corporate demand for organic ingredients was at least partly responsible for the increase.

“What’s striking is that since 2012, all organic recalls have been driven by bacterial contamination, like salmonella, listeria and hepatitis A, rather than a problem with a label,” Mr. Pollack said. “This is a fairly serious and really important issue because a lot of consumers just aren’t aware of it.”

For that matter, the overall amount of food recalled because of suspected bacterial contamination has increased this year, adding to what has been an upward trend in food recalls since 2012, according to Stericycle, which predicts a 24 percent increase in the number of food units that will be recalled by the F.D.A. this year.

The Organic Trade Association, however, took issue with Stericycle’s accounting of recalls, saying its own quick analysis of recall data from the F.D.A. and the Agriculture Department show the problem is less severe, with organic products accounting for 4.9 percent of recalls, in line with the percentage of organic food sold out of total retail sales of food.

“A key point to keep in mind is that an overall increase in organic recalls between 2012 and 2015 would not be surprising — not because organic food is less safe, but because of the dramatic increase in organic food sales and purchases that we’ve been seeing in this country,” said Gwendolyn Wyard, senior director of regulatory and technical affairs at the trade group.

“Sales of organic food in the U.S. have risen by almost 25 percent just since 2012, and the number of organic products on the market is increasing steadily as demand for organic increases,” she said.

Ms. Wyard also noted that food safety mechanisms had increased since 2012, with a corresponding increase in food recalls.

‘Impossible to update a facility to control listeria if built in 1950s’ Acme’s new smoking plant

Due to its ability to grow in the cold and conditions that typically thwart other bacteria, listeria has always been a major concern for the cold-smoked fish industry.

smoked.salmonWith the February opening of a 100,000-square-foot cold-smoking facility in North Carolina, the Brooklyn-based Acme Smoked Fish Corporation hopes to quell those concerns with a raft of new processes to prevent the bacteria’s spread. With a new facility just for cold-smoking, which was designed to reduce possible cross contamination during manufacturing and make equipment much easier to clean, the company now has a much greater ability to control listeria, company R&D senior manager Matt Ranieri told Undercurrent News.

“Now that we have a dedicated facility, we’re able to really control the level of salt. We’re able to really hone in and fine tune in a way that wasn’t possible before because of the equipment,” he said.

The plant, which was built at an investment of $32.2 million according to the newspaper WilmingtonBiz, can process up to 30,000 pounds of smoked fish per day and was designed to isolate critical parts of the manufacturing process.

“It’s impossible to update a facility to the level that you need to control listeria if it was built in the 1950s,” he said.

“No product is released until we have results both from the environment and the product that indicate the absence of listeria,” he said.

Blue Bell is shipping ice cream again after Listeria outbreak

Blue Bell Creameries began shipping ice cream from its facility in Sylacauga, Ala., on Tuesday, more than three months after an outbreak of listeria contamination nearly devastated the Southwestern ice cream favorite and forced the closing of all four of its plants.

blue.bell.jul.15But while this week’s move put frozen treats one step closer to consumers, the company said it did not yet know which stores would ultimately restock their shelves with Blue Bell flavors, or how soon.

“We’ve still got to meet with our retailers,” said Joe Robertson, Blue Bell’s advertising and public relations manager. “Retailers have been very supportive of us.”

Three people died and several others became ill after eating Blue Bell ice cream products contaminated with the listeria bacteria. A series of recalls and cleanups at the plants failed to eradicate the problem, and in April, the company voluntarily pulled all of its ice cream from store shelves.

Mr. Robertson said that the company had hired microbiologists to help review its safety procedures, and that every batch of ice cream would be tested before shipment. State officials in Alabama began collecting their own samples in late July, and cleared Blue Bell on Aug.

The Alabama plant is the only one of the company’s plants — two others are in Texas and one is in Oklahoma — that has been reopened and is producing the company’s products. Before the shutdown, the Alabama plant accounted for about 20 percent of Blue Bell’s items, Mr. Robertson said.

Blue Bell must notify the Texas Department of State Health Services two weeks before it resumes production, according to Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the agency.

 “In FDA testing, more than 99 percent of Blue Bell products had Listeria in it,” Mike Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, told Yahoo Health. “It was incredible. It wasn’t high levels, but it was there.”

Blue Bell has said its plants have gone through extensive cleaning and decontamination, but is it enough?

Doyle says it should be. Here’s why: Blue Bell likely had to strip down all of its plant equipment, take it all apart, and fully clean and sanitize everything. That includes getting rid of biofilms, a mucus-like substance that can surround bacteria like Listeria and protect it from sanitizers that would otherwise kill it.

Once that’s completed, the equipment will be tested and re-tested, and the ice cream will be frequently checked and swabbed to make sure it’s listeria-free.

“The FDA has jurisdiction over this, and they’re going to be monitoring the whole thing,” says Doyle. “The FDA is going to be all over these Blue Bell plants for a while.”

Doyle adds that it’s actually not uncommon for Listeria to get into processing facilities, since “some soil contains listeria and it can come in on plant workers’ shoes.” However, “the key is to control it,” he says.

Unfortunately, Doyle says there’s no way of visibly telling whether your ice cream is Listeria-free — you have to trust the manufacturer.

Or they could market food safety at retail and make microbial test results public.

57 sick including 24 dead in 2008 Maple Leaf Listeria outbreak: the scientific paper

Beginning in the summer of 2008, the deaths of two Toronto nursing home residents in were attributed to listeriosis infections. This eventually prompted an August 17, 2008 advisory by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Maple Leaf Foods, Inc. to avoid serving or consuming certain brands of deli meat as the products could be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

ITALY-G8-G5-AGRICULTURE-FARMWhen genetic testing determined a match between contaminated meat products and listeriosis patients on Aug. 23, 2008, all products manufactured at Maple Leaf Foods plant 97B were recalled and the facility closed

Several weeks later, the company determined that organic material trapped deep inside the plant’s meat slicing equipment harbored Listeria, despite routine sanitization that met specifications of equipment manufacturers. In total, 57 cases of illness were detected, including 24 deaths, connected to the consumption of the plant’s contaminated deli meats.

Notable from the paper:

Plant inspections identified several areas of concern. A building construction project was initiated in April 2008. There was structural damage and poor maintenance in certain rooms containing RTE product and evidence of condensate dripping onto unpackaged finished product in a common refrigerated storage room. IMP documentation indicated that Listeria  spp. were detected at least 16 times between May 1 and August 16, 2008 in routine environmental swabs of food contact surfaces on lines A and B, 2 other production lines (lines C and D), and associated equipment. In response to each positive finding, the IMP staff sanitized production line surfaces and other areas where bacteria could grow. However, there was no analysis of trends over time to identify the underlying cause of the contamination. The cleaning and disinfection procedures at the IMP were inadequate. In addition, employee flow between rooms created opportunities for cross-contamination of finished product.

 Experts who investigated the source of product contamination at the IMP concluded that contaminated mechanical meat slicers were the most likely cause (Weatherill, 2009). As observed in previous outbreaks, meat slicers can provide a site for the growth of L. monocytogenes  and cross-contamination of finished products (Tompkin, 2002). Sanitation procedures used prior to the outbreak were ineffective at removing organic material harbored within the slicer.

listeria4As I have long maintained, the best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants will go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

And the best cold-cut companies should stop dancing around and explicity tell pregnant women, old people and other immunocompromised folks, through labels or point-of-sale information, don’t eat this food unless it’s heated (watch the cross-contamination).


A multi-province outbreak of listeriosis occurred in Canada from June to November 2008. Fifty-seven persons were infected with 1 of 3 similar outbreak strains defined by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis, and 24 (42%) individuals died. Forty-one (72%) of 57 individuals were residents of long-term care facilities or hospital inpatients during their exposure period. Descriptive epidemiology, product traceback, and detection of the outbreak strains of Listeria monocytogenes in food samples and the plant environment confirmed delicatessen meat manufactured by one establishment and purchased primarily by institutions was the source of the outbreak. The food safety investigation identified a plant environment conducive to the introduction and proliferation of L. monocytogenes and persistently contaminated with Listeria spp. This outbreak demonstrated the need for improved listeriosis surveillance, strict control of L. monocytogenes in establishments producing ready-to-eat foods, and advice to vulnerable populations and institutions serving these populations regarding which high-risk foods to avoid.

Multi-Province Listeriosis Outbreak Linked to Contaminated Deli Meat Consumed Primarily in Institutional Settings, Canada, 2008

Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, Volume: 12 Issue 8: August 10, 2015

Currie Andrea, Farber Jeffrey M., Nadon Céline, Sharma Davendra, Whitfield Yvonne, Gaulin Colette, Galanis Eleni, Bekal Sadjia, Flint James, Tschetter Lorelee, Pagotto Franco, Lee Brenda, Jamieson Fred, Badiani Tina, MacDonald Diane, the National Outbreak Investigation Team, Ellis Andrea, May-Hadford Jennifer, McCormick Rachel, Savelli Carmen, Middleton Dean, Allen Vanessa, Tremblay Francois-William, MacDougall Laura, Hoang Linda, Shyng Sion, Everett Doug, Chui Linda, Louie Marie, Bangura Helen, Levett Paul N., Wilkinson Krista, Wylie John, Reid Janet, Major Brian, Engel Dave, Douey Donna, Huszczynski George, Di Lecci Joe, Strazds Judy, Rousseau Josée, Ma Kenneth, Isaac Leah, and Sierpinska Urszula

HPP may be safe but this advert is bad

In 2005, Hormel Foodservice became the first meat processor to make a significant investment in High Pressure Pasteurization (HPP).

HPP is employed after the meat is sliced and packaged — so there is no opportunity for harmful pathogens and food spoilage organisms to re-enter the package, and no need for taste-altering preservatives.

Sounds good, although I wonder about the potential for contamination once the package is opened.

But check out this ad which is a good example of marketers messing up science.

Expectant mothers are advised not to eat cold cuts and other refrigerated ready-to-eat foods because of the potential for Listeria contamination.

In addition to the medieval stirrups and a stereotypical representation of birth, there is no mention of why this lunchmeat may be OK other than, it has no preservatives.

Bad Hormel, bad.

Listeria be out there: FDA reports on cantaloupe safety inspections

Coral Beach of The Packer reports that after inspecting 17 operations, federal officials say that fresh cantaloupe packinghouses are generally following good agriculture practices even though tests at nine of the companies showed listeria contamination.

cantaloupe.handThe inspections by the Food and Drug Administration were part of the agency’s follow-up efforts after a 2011 cantaloupe-related listeria monocytogenes outbreak that sickened more than 150 nationwide and killed more than 30.

“FDA’s 2013 cantaloupe packinghouse (investigation) was intended to further inform FDA of current cantaloupe packinghouse operating practices and conditions and provide data on the expected prevalence of listeria monocytogenes in and on cantaloupes and within packinghouses’ food and non-food contact surfaces during packing, handling and storage,” according to a July 27 report from consumer safety officer Michael Mahovic, who works with the agency’s division of produce safety.

For the review, FDA only inspected “firms that pack fresh cantaloupe in a packinghouse,” according to the report. “Processing facilities, growing fields, cantaloupe that are ‘field-packed’ and firms that do not handle cantaloupe were considered out of scope.”

Initially, FDA identified 50 firms in 18 states for review, but some of those companies were no longer in business and others turned out to be distributors, not packers. The remaining 17 firms that met the review criteria received notice 24 hours before inspectors arrived.

The agency collected environmental and product samples before and after packing and used a standardized questionnaire tailored for cantaloupe packinghouses to collect information and observations about each firm, according to the report.

All 17 firms had food safety plans and all reported they were aware of the 2011 listeria outbreak and that they “took some action to evaluate or bolster their own operations, from re-evaluating their own food safety plans, to completely refitting their buildings,” according to the report.

Eight firms did not have any positive listeria test results. One had pathogenic listeria present and the other eight tested positive for non-pathogenic listeria.

“Such findings do, however, suggest the potential for (pathogenic) listeria monocytogenes to be present,” according to the report.

Listeriosis in the Netherlands: Gastric acid inhibitors additional risk factor

Although the disease burden of listeriosis on population level is low, on individual level the impact is high, largely due to severe illness and a high case fatality. Identification of risk factors supports and specifies public health actions needed for prevention.

listeria.denmarksep.14We performed a case–control study to determine host- and food-related risk factors for non-perinatal listeriosis in the Netherlands. Patients with non-perinatal listeriosis reported between July 2008 and December 2013 were compared with controls from a periodic control survey who completed a questionnaire in the same period. Higher age, male sex, underlying disease, especially cancer and kidney disease, and use of immunosuppressive medicine were strong risk factors for acquiring non-perinatal listeriosis.

Analysis of the food consumption in the group of cases and controls with underlying diseases did not reveal any high-risk food products. Information and advice should continue to be given to persons at risk of severe listeriosis. Univariate analyses indicate that patients using gastric acid inhibitors are at risk. It is worth adding these patients to the group of susceptible persons.

Risk factors for sporadic listeriosis in the Netherlands, 2008 to 2013

Eurosurveillance, Volume 20, Issue 31, 06 August 2015

Friesema IH, Kuiling S, van der Ende A, Heck ME, Spanjaard L, van Pelt W.

Listeria uses alternative metabolic pathways to grow on cold salmon

Listeria monocytogenes grows on refrigerated smoked salmon by way of different metabolic pathways from those it uses when growing on laboratory media. This discovery could lead to reduced incidences of foodborne illness and death, said principal investigator Teresa Bergholz. The research appeared in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

listeria4In the study, the investigators showed that L. monocytogenes grows on cold smoked salmon by using different metabolic pathways to obtain energy from those it uses on laboratory media, even when the media was modified to have the same salt content and pH as the salmon. To grow on the salmon, the bacterium upregulates genes that enable it to use two compounds from cell membranes — ethanolamine and propanediol — as energy sources.

L. monocytogenes, as well as Salmonella, are known to use those same genes to grow within a host — in the gastrointestinal tract, and on macrophages. “There may be ways we can use this information to control the pathogen both in foods as well as in infected people,” said Bergholz, assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary and Microbiological Sciences at North Dakota State University, Fargo. “Understanding how a foodborne pathogen adapts to environmental stresses it encounters on a specific food could allow food microbiologists to develop inhibitors of metabolic or stress response pathways that are necessary for the pathogen to grow or survive on that product.”

“The information may also enable improved risk assessments, as virulence of a pathogen may be affected considerably by the stress responses and/or metabolic pathways used to survive on the food,” said Bergholz.

Bergholz noted that ready to eat products typically have very low levels of contamination with L. monocytogenes, and that the bacterium must be able to grow on the product during refrigerated storage in order to reach an infectious dose. “In many cases, the addition of organic acids will slow or stop the growth of this pathogen on ready to eat meats and seafood.”