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article imageWhy is Listeria showing up more often in food recalls?

By Karen Graham     May 6, 2015 in Food
Listeria monpcytogenes, a food-borne pathogen has been the cause of 18 food recalls since March 1, 2015. Of the 88 total recalls during the same period of time, Listeria accounted for about 20 percent of the total.
Listeria has been appearing in products not typically associated with the bacteria, and many people want to know what's going on. Fadi Aramouni, a Kansas State University food safety specialist and professor of food science, sheds some much-needed light on the problem.
"Listeria is a group of bacteria that is found in cold, wet environments. What's unusual about this type of bacterium is they actually grow and multiply under refrigerated conditions," he says.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), foods such as frozen spinach, hummus, ice cream, and smoothie kits have been recalled because of potential Listeria contamination. These products are not typically recalled for Listeria, and this is unusual.
More often, Listeria is usually found in ready-to-eat deli meats, hot dogs, meat spreads, unpasteurized milk and other dairy products. It is also found in soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk and refrigerated smoked seafood as well as vegetable sprouts.
Aramouni points out that Listeria has not shown up in ice cream in a very long time. This is because pasteurized milk is used in the making of the product. But he cautions us, saying "However, Listeria may survive in the environment if there are not good sanitation procedures in place. Because it survives in cold, wet environments, it can be found in drains or other areas of condensation within a plant, such as the ceiling or light fixtures."
But the food specialist's most telling observation is this: The Listeria could be coming from the ingredients being added to the ice cream. After other ingredients are mixed in, the ice cream is not pasteurized again. "After they pasteurize the milk and make the ice cream, they add things like cookie dough or pecans. The ice cream is then placed in the freezer and does not go through any other type of pasteurization, so if the additional products are contaminated, listeria may survive that process."
Aramouni says the public should not panic. A consumer can't tell a product is contaminated with Listeria just by looking at it. Instead, he advises consumers to pay close attention to recalls, and either throw the product out or return it to the store.
So the Listeria problem could be due to one or more issues. The primary issue is cleanliness of the production facility itself. This issue has come up more than once in recalls, and it is not confined to Listeria contamination alone. Salmonella, E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus are also pathogens that don't belong in the food production process.
Aramouni also pointed to the ingredients added to ice creams that make the flavors so unique. Cookie dough, fresh fruit, candies and a plethora of other ingredients are added today, and they all have the potential for carrying bacteria.
Let's add one more issue that is probably the least talked about, but is very important, just the same. We need rigorous food safety inspections.
The Food Safety Modernization Act was passed by Congress in 2010. The legislation was supposed to give the FDA more tools to prevent food-borne illnesses. But Congress never provided the funding needed to do the job. Today, the FDA is trying to do a herculean job with an underfunded staff of inspectors.
Consumers should not take Listeria lightly. It is a very dangerous bacterium. The CDC says that every year, 1,600 people get sick from Listeria in the U.S. Listeria is the 3rd leading cause of death from food poisoning. At least 90 percent of those people getting Listeria infections are either pregnant women and their newborns, people over 65 and people with compromised immune systems.
More about Listeria monocytogenes, increase in recalls, food inspectors, sanitation procedures, added ingredients
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