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article imageOp-Ed: Confusion over when FDA knew about Listeria at Blue bell facility

By Karen Graham     May 8, 2015 in Food
Brenham - I don't know which is worse, finding out Blue bell has had problems with Listeria in its facility since 2013, or the FDA saying today it "was not aware of these findings" before doing their own investigation this year. It's scary.
Digital Journal has been closely following the Listeria outbreak at Brenham, Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries, first reporting on the outbreak on March 15 of this year.
Since that time we have seen Blue Bell expand their recall of ice cream products on April 7, and then, two weeks later, expand it again to include everything they make. At that time, Blue Bell's chief executive Paul Kruse said in a statement: the company "cannot say with certainty” how the bacteria was introduced to its facilities.
This background information brings us up to date with the latest in the ongoing Listeria problems plaguing Blue Bell Creameries. And it has gotten very interesting. It seems that the ice cream company is no stranger to having problems with the deadly bacteria.
Freedom of Information Act gets 2013 FDA reports
Just a day or two ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its investigations into Blue Bell plants in Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama after a Freedom of Information request by The Associated Press, according to CBS News.
The reports indicated the FDA had found the most extensive violations at the Oklahoma facilities, where the FDA released 16 separate positive tests for listeria on equipment and in ice cream from March 2013 through January 2015. The reports also described sanitation failures at the Brenham, Texas and Alabama plants.
According to the recently released FDA inspection reports, employees at the Alabama plants were cited for wearing dirty clothes, and in Texas, condensation from the ceiling was seen dripping into the food, and onto surfaces that came into contact with food.
According to the reports, tests indicated there was a "high likelihood, or 'presumptive positive' for listeria on surfaces like floors, pallets used to store and carry ingredients and other non-food-contact surfaces." Seattle attorney Bill Marler, a food safety expert says, "That's as bad as it gets. You're just not doing what you're supposed to do."
FDA says it was not aware of Listeria finding before latest inspection
Federal health officials say they were never told of the repeated positive Listeria findings at the Blue Bell facilities before the outbreak turned deadly. But CDC reports on the deaths associated with the outbreak indicate the Listeria problem dates back further than 2013, to at least 2010.
When the CDC started looking closer, it was discovered that the same strain of Listeria monocytogenes that killed the three Kansas hospital patients was also responsible for listeria deaths in 2010 associated with consuming Blue Bell ice cream. A new program introduced in 2013 allows the CDC to map the entire genome of the strain of listeria, thus making it possible to match a strain in Kansas with a strain from years earlier in another state.
The Listeria outbreak and the FDA's alleged lack of knowledge of the bacteria raises some troubling questions about the gaps in the country's food safety program. Does this mean we will only find out about food contamination when people get sick, or worse yet, die?
And to make matters worse, according to the released investigations by the FDA, they did know about the many, many violations, including the finding of Listeria, if we are to believe what has been released. The FDA, in their defense, is saying it's not unusual for companies to not report findings of Listeria or other pathogens.
The FDA further says that companies only have to report to the agency if they think there is a "reasonable probability" that a food could make people sick. The agency adds that companies sometimes clean and sanitize without doing further testing for the pathogen, if they don't find it in the food.
"Although Blue Bell's testing did identify listeria, the company did not further identify the strain to determine if it was pathogenic," FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said.
So now, Blue Bell is saying it will take a few more months to clean and sanitize their facilities. But failing to act promptly on an obvious health risk to the public is a sure way to destroy any consumer trust. And we might add that the revamp of the nation's food safety protocols need to be in place and working, not today, but yesterday.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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