Well, other than two things – both contain items with orange colored flesh and both absorbed last week’s news cycle – nothing else. But, I got your attention. What do we know about the current frozen food Listeria outbreak and recall? In March of 2016, as part of a routine investigation into a report of foodborne illnesses, public health investigators interviewed family members and caregivers of people stricken by the potentially deadly pathogen, Listeria. Some of those illnesses appeared linked to the consumption of Costco purchased frozen vegetables produced by a little known company named CFR Frozen Foods. At about the same time, Ohio agriculture officials had randomly tested another brand of frozen vegetables (also produced by CFR) and it had tested positive for Listeria. The Ohio test genetically matched the ill, which eventually the CDC reported included eight people (two who died) that became sick between September 2013 and March 2016. The CDC was able to link illnesses including those back three years, by using its genetic database, PulseNet. Apparently, in another remarkable coincidence, an FDA inspector had been at the CFR plant in mid-March 2016 and found the following problems in the facility:
- 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.
Although FDA does have mandatory recall authority under the Food Safety Modernization Act passed in 2010, on April 23 this year CFR “voluntarily” recalled 11 frozen vegetable products. However, that would just be the beginning of the recall. As of Friday the 13th, CRF and other companies that used CFR vegetables in their foods had recalled more than 500 products dating back years, most under the jurisdiction of the FDA. Many retail chains and several other food companies have also recalled products from all 50 states. The vegetable recall also infected dozens of other food products under the jurisdiction of the USDA from frozen chicken with vegetable meals, tamales with corn to kale and chicken salads. All toll, those recalls amount to more than 100 million pounds of food possibly tainted with a deadly pathogen. The recall has also spilled across the border to Canada where U.S. imported vegetables have been recalled by its food inspection agency. And, at the end of the week Britain’s Food Standards Agency announced the recall of U.S. sourced frozen food. Consumers are feeling a bit under attack by frozen vegetables that are supposed to be good for them. The recall notifications posted on the various governmental and company websites warning of the risks of consuming Listeria tainted product are worry enough. And, combined with the media – print, radio, TV and the internet – it is enough for any Chicken Little to sound the alarm. In addition, major retailers have been emailing, texting, robo-calling and mailing customers directly about the risks of consuming the contaminated products, some of which was purchased years ago and might well be lurking in the back of one’s freezer. And, it is not like Listeria is something that can be ignored. This nasty pathogen sickens thousands in the U.S. annually, hospitalizing nearly 100 percent of victims and killing about a third of those infected. It is also one of the leading causes of miscarriages and premature births. In 2011 Listeria tainted cantaloupe killed at least 33 in what is one of the largest foodborne death tolls in U.S. history. We as consumers are well served by paying attention to the recall notices and tossing the products – especially, the elderly, immune compromised and pregnant women. So, where do we go from here? There was something wrong in the CFR plant that allowed for the proliferation of Listeria at albeit, low and likely sporadic levels. As the investigation unfolds, we all will likely learn more about what was or was not going on in the plant over the years that would allow this to happen. Was the plant and equipment construction such that Listeria had a place to grow? Was plant sanitation lacking? Did CFR test for Listeria in the plant, on food contact surfaces and in products? What was the role of FDA or other government inspectors in not catching problems before the explosion of a massive recall? There will be likely legitimate criticisms to be shared between government and industry and certainly lessons that can and will be learned. Although of little comfort to those sickened and impacted by the recall, which will cost the food and legal system hundreds of millions of dollars, spotting the outbreak and prompting the recall will have a positive impact. The CDC’s ability to track outbreaks is good and getting better. The use of genetic fingerprinting of foodborne pathogens – including such new technology as whole genome sequencing – found in plants, products and people, allows public health officials to more promptly figure out an outbreak, alert the public and hold the producer accountable. Consumers can seek compensation and make public facts about the outbreak’s cause. In addition, the U.S. Attorney’s office has shown a great deal of interest in recent years in holding companies and their CEO’s criminally responsible for manufacturing tainted food. Lawsuits and jail time have a unique ability to make companies pay attention. Outbreaks and recalls are both disruptive and expensive. These costs create a strong incentive to create mechanisms to prevent them in the future. And, the recalls aside, it is likely that consumers will think twice before grabbing frozen vegetables from their local grocery stores. Recall costs and slumping sales (along with civil and criminal liability) are powerful market incentives, and ones that have worked over time. It is too bad that some in the food industry wait until after a disaster to fix themselves. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)