No doubt about it, food recalls can be hell.

“I’ve never been through anything like this before,” Barry Bettinger, co-owner of Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream in Snohomish, WA, told Food Safety News, as he described the mental and emotional anguish that comes with a recall.

Not only do you worry about the people who have become ill,  you also worry about how the situation will affect your family, employees and customers. Then there’s the harsh blow a recall can deal to a company’s reputation and its bottom line.

Some ice-cream flavors produced by Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream.

On Dec. 23, 2014, Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream, which Bettinger and his wife, have owned for 18 years, issued a voluntary recall of all of its ice cream, gelato, custard and sorbet products. This included all flavors and container sizes produced on or after Jan. 1, 2014, until Dec. 15, 2014 — almost a full year’s worth of the company’s products.

That decision was prompted by the positive confirmation from the Washington State Department of Agriculture of the presence of Listeria monocytogenes, a foodborne pathogen, in samples collected from two products in the ice cream plant, as well as in environmental samples taken throughout the plant during a Dec. 15 inspection.

Listeria can cause serious illness — and can even be fatal — in vulnerable groups such as the elderly, the frail, and children. It can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths. Healthy people may suffer flu-like systems, such as nausea, diarrhea, and high fever.

The ice cream plant was shut down in December after state and local health investigators and the state’s Public Health Laboratories linked Listeria cases involving two 50-year-old Seattle men, who had consumed a high-protein shake mix made by the company, to the same strain of Listeria found in a sample of the company’s high-protein mix.

Bettinger said the voluntary recall was prompted by preliminary environmental testing that could not rule out Listeria.

“That’s why we pulled the trigger right away,” he said.

The two sickened men have since recovered, according to information from the state’s health department. No other illnesses have been connected to the company’s products.

State officials said it is unusual to find Listeria in an ice-cream plant. Even so, during the Dec. 15 inspection, about half of the swabs used by the inspectors turned up the same strain of Listeria that was soon after linked to the two sickened men. The swabs were used on surface areas, equipment, the loading zone, the loading dock, the hallway and the production facility.

(The Dec. 15 inspection was a follow-up inspection of one done at the plant on Oct. 15, which the company failed, scoring 87 when passing is 90 or above. Kirk Robinson, assistant director for food safety with the Washington State Department of Agriculture, told a Seattle Times reporter that the problems found in the October inspection weren’t deemed “critical,” so the plant was allowed to keep operating.)

Since the Dec. 15 inspection, the plant has gone through a major sanitation overhaul.

A silver lining

On. Jan. 23, 2015, Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream got the green light to reintroduce its products dated Jan. 20, 2015, or later, after state agriculture department inspectors found the premises to be free of Listeria.

“Their goal was to find Listeria,” Bettinger said. “They looked everywhere, but they couldn’t find any traces of it.” He added, “Now we have the safest ice cream plant there is in the nation.”

Shahnaz and Barry Bettinger

“This (the upgrade of the plant) is the silver lining in all of this,” said Shahnaz Bettinger.

The Bettingers said the recall will cost the company about $1 million.

The recall, far and wide

The company’s voluntary recall also affected ice cream shops and companies that buy their “ice cream base” from Snoqualmie and then add their own flavors. They, too, issued recalls and had to sanitize their premises.

In addition to the more than 1 million pints of ice cream — bearing names such as Mulkiteo Mud and French Lavender — that the company sells under its own label, it also sells tubs of ice cream to 150 hotels and restaurants. Among its customers are Whole Foods, Seattle’s Space Needle, and Fred Meyer.

The recall impacted a wide geographical area. In one form or another, the company’s ice cream was distributed in Arizona, Idaho, California, Oregon and Washington, and may have been further distributed and sold in retail outlets in Alaska, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

The ‘smoking gun’?

Bettinger said that when the state agriculture department inspectors swabbed the milk and cream totes that had come in from the company’s dairy supplier, the swabs looked “suspicious.”

“They found it (Listeria) on the totes that we hadn’t even touched yet,” he said. “The department said the root cause was the totes. It came as a shock to all of us.”

Robinson, the agriculture department’s food-safety official, told Food Safety News that the totes appear to be “the smoking gun.”

“There are a lot of places where things can go wrong,” he said. “We were scratching our heads about where this had come from.”

The problem with the totes is that they were, as a matter of course, taken to different places in the plant, including the landing dock and the main manufacturing part of the plant. So they were perfect vehicles for transporting the pathogen throughout the facility.

And, while the milk and cream were pasteurized before leaving the dairy processor, food-safety concerns in the dairy industry go further than the product itself. An example is the Food Safety Modernization Act’s proposed new rules focusing on the storage and transportation of dairy products. This includes loading and unloading operations, transportation, packaging and bacterial testing.

Robinson said that the agriculture department is continuing its investigation into the possible source of the Listeria, and, as part of that, will be going back to the dairy processor that supplied the milk and cream to Snoqualmie.

Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream has since switched dairy suppliers.

Seek food-safety advice

Inside the Snoqualmie plant in Snohomish, WA.

Still in a pensive mood a month after the voluntary recall, Bettinger said that the experience calls for a lot of soul-searching. In his case, he puts the blame on himself. His company was growing fast, he was working up to 70 hours a week, and he was relying on his production supervisors — instead of hiring a director of operations — to make sure things were going right.

Unfortunately, things weren’t going right, at least when it came to food safety. That became clear when the two Seattle men fell ill.

Bettinger said he would like to use what he has learned to help new food processors, as well as others who are already in the business, to avoid what he went through.

First and foremost, he said, seek food-safety advice from an expert. Bettinger said he discovered how valuable that can be when he contacted IEH Laboratories, which specializes in molecular epidemiology, for help.

“People definitely need to reach out for technical support,” he said.

Bettinger cannot say enough good things about the company, especially the help he received from consultant Sam Myoda.

Under his supervision, everything in the plant that wasn’t bolted down was removed. The site was scrubbed, raw materials were discarded, and new food-safety procedures were put in place to prevent the contamination from reoccurring.

This included training employees in food-safety practices, following a plan designed to pinpoint potential problem areas, buying new uniforms for the employees, requiring employees to wear hairnets and beard nets, and insisting on regular hand-washing.

Barry Bettinger demonstrates some “serious” hand-washing.

Attired in boots, a white lab coat, a hairnet and a beard net, Bettinger was all smiles as he took off a pair of gloves and demonstrated some “serious” hand-washing. He said he was excited about getting new sinks that can be activated by knee-pressure.

As part of the upgrade, the plant’s new epoxy floors are disinfected on a regular basis and a central sanitizing system has been installed. No water is used in the plant; everything is cleaned with a disinfectant.

The company has also adopted a test-and-hold policy which requires that test results come back before a product can be released into the marketplace.

In short, there has been a total reset of the facility.

Key to all of this, said Snoqualmie’s marketing director, Samantha Hill, is embracing a company-wide culture that makes food safety a top priority. Yes, production and sales are important, she said, but you can’t ignore how important food safety is every step of the way.

State food-safety official Robinson agrees.

“Food safety is very much in the eyes of the consumer and needs to be a priority for companies processing farm products,” he said. “It’s in the forefront of everyone’s scope.”

Don’t leave food safety behind

Bettinger also warned that when a company starts growing, the owner needs to realize that he or she can’t do everything. At that point, he said, it’s important to make sure someone is tasked with the job of making sure food-safety practices are being followed.

Robinson takes a similar view.

“It’s very unfortunate, but we’ve seen that as companies grow, they can miss something obvious that might be right in front of them,” he said. “Sometimes important food-safety procedures don’t keep up with growth.”

And, like Bettinger, Robinson advises companies to get outside guidance about sanitation and then re-evaluate those sanitation procedures as a company grows.

“You have to have some really good procedures in place and follow them to the letter,” he said.

Customer loyalty

Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream, which has a loyal following, has long been respected for its focus on quality and sustainability. According to its website, it uses primarily locally produced ingredients. The lavender in its ice cream even comes from the company’s mini-farm.

The company states that its ice cream, which is made in small batches, contains the highest cream content of any premium ice cream. In addition, the company offers comprehensive benefits and pays for additional education whenever possible.

Bettinger said he’s gratified to see that his customers have stood by him.

“No one has dropped us,” he noted. “I think they appreciate that we issued the voluntary recall and how open we’ve been about everything.”