Thursday, August 6, 2015

Recent Listeria Outbreaks In Ice Cream and Carmel Apples - Time to Reassess Food Safety Systems

From time to time, there are unfortunate food related outbreaks that cause food establishments to reassess their food safety systems.   The cantaloupe-Listeria outbreak was one such case that caught many off guard and prompted a new look at Listeria in fresh produce.  The Salmonella outbreak associated with chicken pot pies was another case that resulted in the need to validate microwave cooking instructions for frozen food.

Along with these, we can add the Listeria in Ice Cream and Listeria in Carmel Apples.

To this point, much of the focus of Listeria was on products that would support growth.  Ice cream, a frozen pasteurized product, was not viewed as risky as refrigerated products such as deli meats, or refrigerated products containing dairy like coleslaw or cheese.  So while indications are that the levels of Listeria in the ice cream were low, two factors come into was that the ice cream impacted individuals with underlying health issues, and that the ice cream was used to make shakes and those shakes could have been held at room temperature for some time.  Research is ongoing and may provide more insight.

Camel apples weren't even on the radar.  There was concern with sliced apples, where Listeria could grow on the cut surface albeit slowly, but this was whole apples.  However in this case, the stick may have caused a similar action (surface damage) within the apple as the stick was inserted that may have provided conditions more apt to support growth.  Or high levels of the organism were forced into the apple.  Here again, research into this outbreak is ongoing.

So for products that support little or no growth potential for Listeria in their original state, we need to ask:
1) Will the level of Listeria contamination on a ready-to-eat product be high enough to impact the health of those with severe underlying health issues?  Then, maintaining a clean environment is needed prevent contamination regardless of whether the product supports growth.
2) Will the properties of the product change where those changes can support growth?  Such changes can occur anywhere downstream including other food operations, foodservice or retail establishments, or even by consumers.
3) Will the item be used as an ingredient in other products where those other products are more apt to support the growth of Listeria.  So if apples will be added to a slaw type of salad, what will be the impact in the slaw if a small level of listeria are present on the apples?

Of course one other thing that is important to consider - will product be tested by the customer, a government agency, or some other interested party.  Many recalls are started when someone tests product and find something that can be considered dangerous...including Listeria.  And it could be a strain of LM that is not overly pathogenic.

Wall Street Journal
Ice-Cream Recall Sends Chill Through Food Industry
Blue Bell’s problems prompt rethinking of measures to prevent bacteria contamination

By Jesse Newman

Updated Aug. 2, 2015 7:28 p.m. ET  63 COMMENTS  

As Blue Bell Creameries LP prepares to resume production of its ice cream after a sweeping recall, its mistakes are fueling broader rethinking of how to keep ice cream and other foods free of deadly bacteria.

Federal records show that Blue Bell failed to follow practices recommended by government and industry groups that might have prevented listeria contamination of ice cream at all three of its main plants. At the same time, some food-safety professionals say the crisis is indicative of insufficient attention, beyond Blue Bell, of the risks of listeria.

“It’s really been a wake-up call for the food industry, and not just for dairy but for other companies as well who thought they were in good shape but are now asking, could this happen to me,” said Joe Stout, a food-safety consultant who was previously a senior manager at Kraft Foods.

Blue Bell’s recall in April came after health officials tied its ice cream to three deaths at a Kansas hospital since the start of 2014, and additional illnesses elsewhere. Inspection records released by the Food and Drug Administration since then show sanitation problems that potentially created refuges for listeria had persisted at Blue Bell since at least 2009. Those lapses came after the FDA issued draft guidance in 2008 highlighting that ice cream and other packaged cold foods could harbor listeria, and recommending measures to control it. In May, a former-Houston resident sued the company for negligence in U.S. District Court in Austin, Texas, claiming a severe listeria infection caused by Blue Bell ice cream left him with permanent brain damage and unable to work.

Beginning in 2013, Blue Bell repeatedly found listeria in its Broken Arrow, Okla., facility—including on floors, a drain and at equipment that fills half-gallon containers with ice cream—indicating the company didn’t do enough to identify the underlying cause or eliminate the source, said David Acheson, a food-safety consultant who was previously associate commissioner for foods at the FDA.

“It’s like catching a mouse in a mouse trap, but not going and finding the hole it came in through,” said Martin Bucknavage, a food-safety specialist at Penn State University, after reviewing the FDA reports. “That’s not going to fix the problem or make sure the mouse doesn’t get into the food.”

Blue Bell declined to comment. In May, a spokesman said, “We thought our cleaning process took care of any problems, but in hindsight, it was not adequate.” He added that it “would immediately clean the surfaces and swab until the tests were negative.”

The recall of all Blue Bell’s products threatened to destroy the 108-year-old company, which last year was the third-biggest U.S. ice cream producer, with sales in 23 states. Blue Bell in May laid off 37% of its 3,900 workers, and warned shareholders that it faced a capital crisis that could force it to close.

Last month, Blue Bell secured a loan from Texas billionaire Sid Bass for up to $125 million in a deal that could give the Bass family one third of the company. On Tuesday, the company said after conducting successful test runs at its Sylacauga, Ala., facility, Blue Bell was now producing ice cream there for sale.

A spokesman for the company said it wouldn’t release any product from its inventory until Blue Bell, the FDA and Alabama regulators are comfortable it is safe to eat.

Some food-safety professionals say Blue Bell’s problems reflect broader complacency in the ice-cream industry about listeria. Many people in the food industry believed the frozen dessert was at lower risk of being associated with infections from listeria than some other packaged foods, in part because the bacteria doesn’t grow when food is frozen.

Until recently, finding listeria in ice cream was uncommon, though not unheard of. Neither of the two largest U.S. ice cream producers—Nestlé SA, which makes Edy’s, and Unilever UL 0.81 % PLC, the maker of Ben & Jerry’s—have had to recall their products due to contamination, industry professionals said.

However, three small ice-cream makers recently have recalled products because of listeria contamination, including Columbus, Ohio-based Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, which has had to shut production twice. Since its second bout with listeria in June, Jeni’s has been searching its plant for the source of contamination while another facility makes its ice cream.

Blue Bell’s struggle with listeria also has spurred other rivals to evaluate their food-safety programs. The board of directors at another U.S. ice cream company commissioned a full briefing from its management after the Blue Bell problems surfaced to confirm its own practices were sufficient, a person familiar with the matter said.

“People look at it [ice cream] as a lower risk product because it’s frozen,” said Mr. Bucknavage, adding that concern over listeria in some meats and cheeses until recently was much greater.

The FDA, along with other government agencies, placed ice cream toward the bottom of a 2003 list of “ready-to-eat” foods at risk of being associated with infections from listeria, below items like deli meats and soft cheeses. Its 2008 guidelines also were still in draft form and nonbinding. A spokeswoman for the FDA didn’t explain why its listeria guidelines hadn’t yet been finalized, but said the “draft is under deliberation.”

The FDA says it is now considering “alternative approaches” to its existing guidance that it hopes “will encourage industry to adopt effective listeria control measures and maximize public health protection.”

Though the FDA’s guidelines are optional, “the more fool you [are] if you choose not to follow them,” said Dr. Acheson, noting that they essentially reflect the government’s expectations.

Others concur that existing guidance should have been enough. Beyond the FDA’s 2008 draft guidelines, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, an industry group, also began advising companies on battling food-borne pathogens as early as 2011, offering checklists for effective sanitation and pathogen-monitoring programs on its website starting a short time later.

Among the FDA’s recommendations was that companies construct plants to prevent condensation from dripping onto plant surfaces, food packaging material or exposed food. FDA inspectors found that problem repeatedly at Blue Bell: in 2009 and again this year.

The FDA also advised companies to regularly test for listeria on surfaces that touch food. The government recommended testing the food itself, and the dairy innovation center recommended testing products for pathogens when necessary to ensure effective safety programs. But FDA records show Blue Bell didn’t test its ice cream, or surfaces that touched it, despite finding listeria traces in one of its three main plants.

In a May letter to the FDA, Blue Bell said it suspects equipment that fills containers with ice cream was a potential source of contamination in its Oklahoma plant, along with a drain that may have released listeria particles into the environment. It is unclear from the publicly available documents what the sources were in Blue Bell’s main Texas plant and the one in Alabama.

“The dairy industry has a good handle on what needs to be done to ensure a product is safe,” said Peggy Poole, a veteran executive who has worked for Häagen-Dazs and Hood ice-cream brands. Information about effective listeria control “is readily available,” she said.

Some former Blue Bell employees say food-safety considerations appeared to take a back seat to expansion in recent years. Sales of Blue Bell’s ice cream rose nearly 45% to roughly $880 million from 2010 through 2014, according to market-research firm Euromonitor International.

“Things just reached a critical point where we were moving too much product without the proper safeguards in place,” said one employee who worked in operations at Blue Bell for more than a decade, noting that production during that period increased almost eightfold in a single part of one plant. Blue Bell declined to comment.

Blue Bell has agreed with health officials that it will only resume ice-cream production under far stricter microbial controls and greater regulatory scrutiny. Meanwhile, the company has promised to “reassess everything” about its operations and make significant changes.

—Annie Gasparro contributed to this article.

Write to Jesse Newman at

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