Authorities in Germany have admitted mistakes were made as part of investigations into a Listeria outbreak that affected 37 people beginning in 2014.

One infection was recorded in 2014, three in 2016 and four in 2017 but the outbreak was only identified in 2018 by whole genome sequencing when there was an increase with 21 people sick. This year, eight more patients became ill with the last disease onset date in mid-July. Three people are reported to have died with listeriosis as a contributing factor.

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) and Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) looked at supply chains and food samples. Investigations compared a Listeria isolate from the Wilke Waldecker Fleisch- und Wurstwaren company near Hesse with patient isolates from the outbreak, finding a close relationship between them.

The United States was one of more than 20 countries that may have received meat from this German company but no illnesses were recorded in other nations.

Failures at all levels
Issues were raised about the speed of communication between different authorities, scrutiny of Wilke and decision making around the timing of closing the business.

Reinhard Kubat, district administrator in Waldeck-Frankenberg, a county in Hessen, said the focus should not be on blame but on actions for the future.

“We know that there have been mistakes… and we are ready to protect consumers to jointly improve food monitoring to regain consumer confidence. As we know, there have been failures at all levels of government. All authorities must work together to prevent a repeat of the Wilke case, if possible. There cannot be 100 percent certainty. All authorities, however, collectively share the duty of learning from what happened and to do everything possible to rule out such incidents.”

A 40-page review of the Wilke case by authorities in Waldeck-Frankenberg was given to the Hessian Ministry for the Environment, Climate Protection, Agriculture and Consumer Protection.

It was agreed food monitoring would be improved with unannounced inspections in manufacturing companies to be stepped up and carried out at fixed intervals together with technical supervision. Businesses self-control systems are also going to be looked at more intensively.

What went wrong?
Priska Hinz, Hessen consumer protection minister, said the food business operator is primarily responsible at all stages of production, processing and distribution in ensuring food meets requirements of the law.

“These include in particular food safety, traceability, prevention, transparency and emergency measures, as well as cooperation with the authorities. Food inspection ensures that employers comply with their responsibilities and that only safe food comes onto the market,” she said.

“In the case of Wilke, the food business operator obviously did not fulfill his obligations. Nevertheless, it is also important in the future to recognize such cases at an early stage and to act consistently.”

Based on EU regulation, food firms are sorted into risk levels that equate to a certain frequency of checks. Wilke was classified as risk level four which should have meant the firm had to be inspected 12 times a year but a mistake saw the company reduced to quarterly inspections.

For a company the size as Wilke, a regular review of all operating rooms is necessary. However, control reports from 2018 show that inspections only took place in different areas of the site. Between 2015 and 2018 it could also not be shown that controls on self-checks at Wilke took place.

Listeria positives
Between May 2018 and May 2019, Listeria monocytogenes was found in seven of 131 product samples examined by Wilke so the company told authorities it had strengthened hygiene controls.

Despite Listeria findings by authorities from Hamburg and Baden-Württemberg no further official sampling seems to have taken place for the next four months, based on investigations in April this year.

The 31 tests from April are environmental samples of which five detected Listeria monocytogenes and two samples contained other Listeria. However, despite this there was no increase in the number of official samples.

The Hessian Ministry of Consumer Protection was informed by the BVL on Aug. 12 that Wilke had supplied food to wholesalers in six of nine health facilities where people suffering from the Listeria outbreak strain were present. But authorities in Waldeck-Frankenberg, who are responsible for food monitoring at Wilke, were not informed until Aug. 20.

After an inspection in early September, the company was told to sample all five slicers on a daily basis and thoroughly clean and disinfect all production rooms. Product samples were negative for Listeria. In mid-September a link between the company and the illness cluster was established after further analysis of the samples from April. Listeria was found in environmental samples taken this month.

Officials stopped production at the Wilke facility in early October, with the company’s inventory still at about 300 tons, and a criminal complaint was made to the public prosecutor in Kassel. The company has since filed for bankruptcy.

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