The Cooked Egg recall this month once again shows how one glitch in a food safety system at one facility can have a ripple effect throughout the food chain. In this case, positive test results for Listeria on cooked eggs necessitated that the company recall up to 1 million cooked eggs. This in turn, has resulted in a dozen or so associated product recalls where these eggs were used as an ingredient as well as the removal of eggs from salad bars where eggs were served sliced, diced, or crumbled.
Consumers demand fresh, already-prepared foods, and so refrigerated ready-to-eat (RTE) foods are now a staple in many retail and convenience food stores. Most stores would be hard pressed to prepare every prepared RTE food item from scratch. They rely on their suppliers to pre-prepare many of these items, such as cooked eggs, to be mixed in as an ingredient to make a product or directly served as the finished product. Even many restaurants now use pre-prepared food items, some fully cooked, some partially cooked. Because of this, suppliers of these pre-prepared RTE items must have excellent food safety systems in place. These systems must account for the shipping, handling, and serving of foods without any additional cook step by the retail or foodservice company. Throw in the fact that consumers also want foods without preservatives , including lower salt, and one can see the increased challenges.
Listeria is one hazard associated with ready-to-eat refrigerated foods. This organism grows at refrigeration temperatures, so it can be found in the food plant environment that is not adequately cleaned. In addition to Listeria, there can be other hazards if there is temperature abuse of the product, such as Clostridium perfringens, Clostridium botulinum, and Staphylococcus aureus.
Hopefully this case raises the flag to all those who prepare RTE foods or food components as well as those who buy them. A small glitch in the system, such as this case where there was a repair in the packaging area, can produce a chain reaction of issues downstream, and more importantly, have the potential to produce illness in those who consumer the contaminated food.
Recall Reveals An Egg's Long Path To The Deli Sandwich
by Nancy Shute NPR February 9, 2012
What did a Cobb salad and a chicken salad have in common that have made them the latest entries in a big ongoing food safety recall?
The answer is eggs. Hard-boiled eggs, to be precise. More than 1 million eggs bound for supermarkets, delis and convenience stores have been recalled since late January for possible contamination with listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that causes fever, nausea and diarrhea, and can be deadly in children and the elderly. No illnesses have been reported.
But the fact that the suspect eggs have made their way into products in 34 states — from packaged egg salad sandwiches in Walgreens in California to garden salads at Wegmans stores in New York state — says a lot about the twisting paths that prepared foods can take on the way to the plate.
The recalled whole peeled eggs were sold packed in brine in 10- and 25-pound buckets by Michael Foods in Minnetonka, Minn.
Diane Sparish, a spokesperson for the company, tells The Salt her customers were food distributors, food service operators, delis and food manufacturers. They liked the convenience of not having to cook the eggs themselves, she says. "Typically those products would be used as hard-cooked eggs in and of themselves, or in a finished product such as a salad."
The eggs were packed at the firm's facility in Wakefield, Neb., and shipped under six brand names, including Columbia Valley Farms and Wholesome Farms. The shelf life on the eggs is 45 days as long as the bucket hasn't been opened, according to the firm's website.
That seems like an awfully long wait to get to the plate, or the egg-salad sandwich.
Food-safety experts say that selling pre-cooked eggs in brine isn't in itself a risky undertaking. But all processed refrigerated foods are at risk of contamination. Listeria is a particular worry.
"Listeria grows extremely well in these types of foods," says Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. The problem is amplified because deli foods like cold cuts and the hard-boiled eggs involved in this recall are often in the refrigerator for weeks before they are used, and listeria grows like wildfire at refrigerator temperatures.
"You will see growth from a few cells to millions or billions within a few weeks," Doyle told The Salt. He's done research to test that in deli meats like chicken and turkey, and says the growth of the pathogens was "incredible."
In recent years deli meat processors have taken steps to reduce the risk of contamination, including heat-processing packaged meats, and adding two chemicals, potassium lactate and sodium diacetate, that together curb the growth of the bug.
Michael Foods identified a repair project in the packaging room as the likely source of contamination, according to Sparish. "Since then we've taken corrective steps to address the issue."
Doyle says that "in general I think deli products are safe." But he says eaters should be aware that just because something is fresh, it doesn't mean it hasn't had a lengthy wait in the wings.