Executives at Dole Food Co. Inc. knew about an outbreak of Listeria at the company’s salad production plant in Springfield, Ohio for more than a year before shutting it down in January.
Executives at Dole Food Co. Inc. knew about an outbreak of Listeria at the company’s salad production plant in Springfield, Ohio for more than a year before shutting it down in January, an April 29th report in the industry publication, Food Safety News (FSN), charges.
Now, the company is cooperating with a US Department of Justice investigation into its procedures for identifying, containing, and managing outbreaks of food-borne infections in its facilities. To date, 33 people in the United States and Canada have been diagnosed with a strain of Listeria traced to Dole products. Four of those sickened ultimately have died.
Douglas C. Moyer, assistant professor, Division of Public Health, College of Human Medicine and Researcher, Food Fraud Initiative, Michigan State University, told Contagion that if it is proved that “someone in the company knew of an existing health hazard and did not resolve it in a timely manner, [it] may put executives at risk of criminal charges.”
FSN reportedly obtained a copy of a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspection document, which suggests that swab tests performed by Dole at the Ohio facility in July 2014 as part of its standard food safety procedures returned positive results for Listeria; however, company officials didn’t cease operations at the production plant until January of this year.
They reopened the plant on April 21, 2016.
In a company statement published by FSN and other media outlets, Dole executives noted that “the safety of the foods we provide to our consumers, and the safety of our employees, are part of the fabric of our company… Those FDA reports deal with issues at our plant that we have corrected. We have been working in collaboration with the FDA and other authorities to implement ongoing improved testing, sanitation and procedure enhancements, which have resulted in the recent reopening of our Springfield salad plant.”
Unfortunately, this outbreak of Listeria is only the latest example of food-borne infection outbreaks in the United States, and it calls into question current standards for food safety in this country, as well as their enforcement. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million Americans are sickened by food-borne infections each year; of these, more than 125,000 are hospitalized and more than 3,000 die. The CDC reports that Listeria is the third-leading cause of death among food-borne infections in the United States, and more than 1,600 people in the country are infected with Listeria monocytogenes annually.
“Listeriosis is a very serious illness that is particularly problematic for pregnant women, children, and the elderly,” Barbara Kowalcyk, PhD, senior food safety risk analyst, Research Triangle Institute, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill told Contagion. “In newborns, it can lead to significant neurologic complications causing life-long cognitive difficulties. I’m not sure most Americans understand how serious an issue this is.”
According to Dr. Kowalcyk, who devoted her life’s work to food safety after she lost her two-year-old son Kevin to a food-borne infection in 2001, at present, knowledge of the signs and symptoms of food-borne illnesses among medical professionals is lacking, despite efforts to raise awareness of the issue on the part of the CDC, the FDA, and other government and non-government organizations. As a result, too many cases go undiagnosed and, as a result, under- or untreated.
In addition, she added, state and local public health departments typically lack the resources to properly respond to outbreaks and perform the necessary investigations designed to identify and contain them. Previous outbreaks have been linked to pre-packaged fruits and vegetables, as well as hot dogs, deli meats, and even soft-serve ice cream. In fact, Australia recommends that all pregnant women avoid eating soft-serve ice cream after an outbreak of Listeria there was traced back to the product.
In 1996, CDC partnered with food safety and public health organizations to create PulseNet, a surveillance system designed to track food-borne infection outbreaks, and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) created a mobile app, FoodKeeper, which provides users with “valuable storage advice” to help maximize shelf-life, prolong freshness, and improve the quality of foods and beverages.
Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.