Damaged equipment at a frozen food plant — described by federal inspectors as being impossible to clean — could be a contributing factor in a Listeriosis outbreak that began in 2013 and is ongoing. Staff from the Food and Drug Administration inspected the CRF Frozen Foods LLC plant in Pasco, WA, from March 14-17, according to a report posted Thursday on the FDA’s website. The company stopped production at the plant April 25 after being notified by federal officials that frozen vegetables produced there had been linked by genetic testing to several people who had infections from Listeria monocytogenes. On Friday, CRF referred questions about the FDA inspection report to the communications staff at its affiliate, R.D. Offutt Co. Staff at R.D. Offutt did not respond to requests for comment Friday. CRF has not updated its online statement about the situation since May 4, after it expanded its recall to include all food produced at the Pasco plant since May 2014. The two-page FDA inspection report includes boilerplate citations of applicable sections of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act on its second page. The first page includes hand-written observations documenting:
- a damaged plastic shovel used for food contact tasks;
- chipping, cracking and missing pieces of plastic on food contact portions of equipment on the onion production line;
- a plastic conveyor belt with missing plastic pieces on at least five legs that are in direct contact with onions;
- utility knives used for trimming bad spots off onions that had initials etched on their blades; and
- blue tape being used as a temporary repair on a cracked metal plate above a consumer pack line that was repacking product for export at the time of the inspection.
All of the examples cited by inspectors are cause of concern for the same reason — they mean it’s impossible to adequately clean the equipment that is in direct contact with food being produced. “The materials and workmanship of equipment and utensils does not allow proper cleaning and maintenance,” according to the report. The report, dated March 17, does not indicate whether inspectors collected swab samples from surfaces in the production plant. Also yet to be determined Other unknowns as of Friday included how many more products will be added to the more than 500 already recalled by CRF and other companies that use its vegetables in their own products. Many retail chains and several food companies have recalled products, with all 50 states as well as Canadian provinces involved. Also pending is the victim count. As of its May 3 update, CDC reported at least eight people have been sickened since September 2013. Two died after becoming infected, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that state officials in Washington and Maryland did not consider Listeriosis to be the cause of their deaths. “Epidemiologic and laboratory evidence available at this time indicates that frozen vegetables produced by CRF Frozen Foods of Pasco, WA, and sold under various brand names are one likely source of illness in this outbreak,” CDC officials reported. Some of that lab evidence came from tests on random samples of frozen vegetables the Ohio Department of Agriculture collected earlier this year at the retail level. The department found Listeria monocytogenes in True Goodness by Meijer brand frozen organic white sweet cut corn and frozen organic petite green peas, both produced by CRF Frozen Foods. The DNA fingerprints of the organic corn and peas matched Listeria monocytogenes strains already on file in the CDC’s PulseNet database. Whole genome sequencing showed samples from seven listeriosis victims were closely related to the Listeria monocytogenes isolate from the frozen corn. The isolate from the peas was closely related to the isolate from a sample from one sick person. CDC scientists say “closely related” pathogen isolates equate to identical twins in human terms. The basic tenants of science make them reluctant to say anything is an absolute match. However, federal officials are not convinced that they have found the root cause of the 32-month outbreak. Source of contamination unclear “Investigations are ongoing to determine if food sources used to manufacture CRF Frozen Foods products could explain some of the illnesses,” FDA reported in its most recent update May 4. One of those “food sources” could be onions from Oregon Potato Co., also located in Pasco, WA. “March 2016 environmental samples collected by FDA from Oregon Potato Company, located in Pasco, WA, were found to be closely related genetically to seven of the isolates of ill people associated with this outbreak,” the FDA reported. “Based on this information, Oregon Potato Company voluntarily recalled wholesale onion products, which led to subsequent downstream customer recalls, one of which publicly disclosed Oregon Potato Company as its product source.” Fate of CRF employees also unclear As of Wednesday, CRF layoffs mean almost 250 people don’t know when or if they will be getting their next paycheck, according to the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, WA. The newspaper reported a CRF spokesperson said about 180 employees still had jobs. Produce growers who supply CRF are also in limbo as the company works with state and federal investigators to determine the source of the Listeria contamination. A retail communications expert working with CRF told the Tri-City Herald CRF should praised for its handling of the situation. “The leadership of the company is to be lauded for it,” said Gene Grabowski, who also coordinated public relations for Bluebell Creameries Listeria-related recall in 2015. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)