Lessons from Listeria: Food Safety for Multi-Unit Operators

By Brian Harris

listeria

If you Google food safety news, you’ll see Listeria stories dominates headlines.

Here are just a few of the recent stories:

  • Blue Bell Creameries allegedly knew about Listeria contamination in 2013.
  • Inventure Foods lost $14.6 million during its first fiscal quarter due to the recall of the Fresh Frozen line of frozen vegetables and Jamba “At Home” smoothies products for possible contamination.
  • Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams spent $200,000 to overhaul its kitchens as a result of possible contamination.
  • Earlier this month, Sabra recalled 30,000 cases of its Classic Hummus for possible contamination.

What is going on!?

There have been eight outbreaks of Listeria since 2011, and five of these outbreaks have occurred since 2014, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. This is a serious consumer health issue, considering that about 1,600 people are infected with Listeria each year and 260 die, which is a high ratio among foodborne illnesses, reported Forbes.

Here are some important facts about Listeria:

  • The pathogen comes from water and soil contamination that makes its way into food processing areas.
  • Listeria can live in refrigerated products for months and frozen products for years.
  • Some food groups are linked to Listeria more than others. Examples include raw milk, soft cheeses, deli meats and smoked seafood. However, fruits and vegetables are also linked. For example, the largest Listeria outbreak on record was in 2011 and was associated with cantaloupes.

It’s enough for one operator of one facility to maintain the hygienic standards that reduce the risk of pathogen contamination. What do you do if you’re a multi-unit operator or distributor?

What Can Foodservice Operators Do to Control Foodborne Illnesses?

Clean and make sure your equipment is working. This is really the essence of food safety.

It’s why Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is spending $200,000 to overhaul its production kitchen to reduce the risk of pathogens and cross contamination. The company’s investigation revealed that Listeria was present on the spout of one of its production machines. As a precaution, fruits and vegetables will now be processed at a separate location.

The FDA is now calling out Blue Bell Ice Cream for not making the proper adjustments to cleaning and sanitation practices after the company found Listeria at its manufacturing facility in 2013. According to one report, the FDA has not revealed why the company’s Oklahoma plant was not closed after repeated findings of Listeria. Some of the plant’s violations include dirty equipment, inadequate food storage, food being held at improper temperatures and employees not washing hands appropriately.

Meanwhile, the results of a separate study conducted by Purdue University found persistent rates of Listeria in retail delis. The researchers found contamination on 4.5 percent of food-contact surfaces and 14.2 percent of non-food-contact areas. On average, 9.5 percent of all samples were contaminated and 3.3 percent of transfer points.

The lead author of this study said that deli slicers are most certainly not getting cleaned as often as recommended. Some companies should clean the deli slicer every four hours, and it can take 20 or 30 minutes to properly sanitize the equipment.

Food for Thought: While food manufacturers have strict requirements to control for Listeria, retail stores have no requirements.

No wonder why the healthcare community advises pregnant women not to avoid eating lunch meats!

The Purdue study is just one study for one food group. In the grand scope of things, consumers can only wash fruits and vegetables. Packaged and prepared products are out of their control.

In a way, they really are placing their lives in the hands of food retailers and distributors.

It’s up to these companies to do their due diligence, audit their own facilities in a truthful manner, and monitor their employees’ food handling activities.

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