Oregon-based Reser’s Fine Foods Inc. has recently recalled salad products because of the Listeria risk posed by an outsourced ingredient. Now the company has its own problems with the stubborn bacteria at a manufacturing facility in North Carolina. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration told company president and CEO Mark Reser in a July 1 warning letter that the facility in Halifax, NC, which produces refrigerated, ready-to-eat (RTE) salads, was inspected from Nov. 3-10, 2015, and that Listeria was found in several places within the plant. “During our inspection, FDA collected environmental samples from various areas in your processing facility, including areas that are in close proximity to food and food contact surfaces. FDA laboratory analyses of the environmental swabs found the presence of Listeria monocytogenes (L. monocytogenes), a human pathogen in your facility,” the federal agency wrote. As a result, the food products made there are adulterated because they were “prepared, packed or held under insanitary conditions whereby they may have been rendered injurious to health,” FDA added. Six environment swabs collected on Nov. 3-5, 2015, at the North Carolina plant were positive for Listeria monocytogenes, according to FDA’s warning letter. Four were taken inside the processing room, including from a direct food-contact surface. This was “not the first time FDA investigators collected environmental samples from your facility that were found to be positive” for Listeria, the letter continued, adding that environmental samples taken during a 2013 inspection also found Listeria in various locations within the facility, including floor gaps, wheels of forklifts and carts that are moved throughout the facility, and floor drains. Analysis using whole-genome sequencing revealed that at least three different strains of Listeria are present in the North Carolina plant, FDA stated. “The evidence demonstrates that L. monocytogenes has maintained its presence within your production facility since November 2013. The reoccurring presence of identical strains of L. monocytogenes in your environment indicates a resident strain or niche harborage site present in the facility. These findings also demonstrate that your sanitation procedures have historically been inadequate to control, reduce, or eliminate this pathogenic organism from your facility,” the agency wrote. CGMP violations also noted In addition, FDA told Reser’s that agency investigators had found serious violations of Current Good Manufacturing Practice (CGMP) regulations at the Halifax plant. These problems involved inadequate cleaning and sanitizing of utensils and equipment. The agency’s warning letter specified that pieces of food from previous manufacturing runs remained on the machinery afterward, and some were allergens such as shellfish and wheat. Other problems involved dripping condensate, puddled water, slimy build-up around drain holes, bad seals, worn equipment and insufficient measures to keep metal parts and other extraneous material out of food products. Reser’s responded to the agency on Nov. 25, 2015, with a description of numerous steps being taken to address these issues at the North Carolina facility. However, FDA noted that the response “does not fully address the violations observed during the inspection.” Attempts by Food Safety News to speak with Mark Reser on Wednesday were unsuccessful, and calls to Ken Braswell, general manager of the North Carolina plant, marketing staff at the company’s Oregon headquarters, and a Portland-based public relations spokeswoman for the company were not returned. Reser’s opened the Halifax plant in May 2001 and expanded it by 500 jobs in 2010. The facility makes refrigerated macaroni and pasta salads and desserts such as puddings and gelatins. Annual production there more than doubled from 40 to 100 million pounds during 2001-2009. Listeria is notoriously difficult to eradicate once it gains a foothold in a food manufacturing facility. Unlike most pathogens, it tolerates cold temperatures and can even grow in refrigerated environments. However, the bacteria are killed by cooking and pasteurization. Infection with Listeria monocytogenes, or listerosis, is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems. Most people do not get seriously ill, but infection during pregnancy can cause fetal loss (miscarriage or stillbirth), preterm labor, and illness or death in newborn infants. Previous Listeria-related recalls A recall in April involving Reser’s products was linked to one lot of potentially Listeria-contaminated onions used as an ingredient in 19 of its branded refrigerator salads. The individually quick frozen onions were supplied by Oregon Potato Company (doing business as Freeze Pack) and were cited in several secondary recalls announced by other companies, including Pictsweet and Schnucks. A Reser’s spokeswoman said at the time that the company was no longer using onions from that source. The company also issued a large recall of its RTE salad products in October 2013, which USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service stated was due to potential cross-contamination with Listeria monocytogenes from product contact surfaces at the firm’s manufacturing facility in Topeka, KS. FDA sent Reser’s a warning letter on Nov. 1, 2013, informing the company of Listeria-positive swabs collected from the Topeka plant. These swabs were taken from a water line where condensate was dripping into a mayonnaise mixing vat, providing a direct route of contamination into food, the agency stated. FDA followed up on Sept. 3, 2014, with a “close out letter” noting that corrective actions the company had taken at the Topeka facility appeared to address the previously observed violations there. In a non-food-related incident, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined the company $71,700 last fall for an ammonia leak in March 2015 at the Topeka plant found to have stemmed from a compressor seal leak. Eight of the 13 OSHA violations involved safety and record-keeping problems. No illnesses have been cited in connection with any of the company’s recalls or facility problems. Reser’s, which has its corporate offices in Beaverton, OR, built a 310,000-square-foot salad and specialty food plant and distribution center in nearby Hillsboro, OR, last year. The new facility reportedly cost about $18 million and, because it was built in a state enterprise zone and created and/or retained jobs in Oregon, was eligible for up to five years of property tax breaks. Reser’s has also purchased other food firms in recent years, buying Orval Kent and parent company Chef Solutions for $69.2 million and Vaughn Foods for $18.25 million in 2011. It was reported in 2014 that Mistral Capital Management, a New York equity firm, provided $36.4 million in cash and $25.3 million in secured debt for the purchases and that Reser’s had $1 billion in revenue at the time. Reser’s employs about 4,800 people in 16 facilities across the U.S. and in Mexico. Starting out as a family operation in 1950 making salads and prepared dips, the firm has recently branched out into fresh fruit and vegetables. One of Oregon’s largest privately held companies, Reser’s posted about $700 million in revenue in 2010.
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