Sunday, January 10, 2010

Listeria monocytogenes: On The Loose In 2010

Presence of Pathogen Prompts Recalls in United States, Canada and France

During the first week of January, Listeria monocytogenes has been behind the recall of processed meats in Canada, cheese trays in France, and peanut butter, dips, salsas, spreads and hash-browned potatoes in the United States. Yet, according to the recall notices, "No illnesses have been reported."

On January 5th, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Olymel S.E.C. announced that the company had expanded its earlier recall of processed meats to include additional distribution information. The initial recall notice (issued in December 2009) advised that the recalled meats were sold in Ontario and Quebec. The revised notice added that some of the products may also have been distributed in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The notice should have added Maine to that distribution list, since 312 pounds of Olymel hams were shipped to Associated Grocers of Maine, which issued its own December 2009 recall notice.

On January 7th, France notified its EU trading partners that an unnamed French company had detected a very high level of Listeria monocytogenes (3,600/gram) in its cheese trays, and had initiated a product recall. The cheese trays were distributed in France and Germany. No news of this recall has appeared on any French government web sites. To put the level of contamination into perspective, the most liberal allowed level of Listeria monocytogenes in a ready-to-eat food 100/gram; US requirements are more stringent – mandating that the pathogen not be detectable in a 25-gram sample.

United States
Southern Style Hash Browned Potatoes turned up on ShopRite's product recall page on January 4th. Even though the reason for the recall was a risk of Listeria monocytogenes, the hazard was downplayed. According to the ShopRite notice, the recall was initiated when a regulatory agency found the pathogen after routine testing. Food City and Giant Eagle supermarket chains subsequently posted recall notices for one or more varieties of hash browned potatoes, too.

Although neither chain mentioned Listeria monocytogenes as the reason for the recall, Giant Eagle mentioned "bacterial contamination." Food Club, ShopRite and Giant Eagle brands have been listed in one or more of the recall notices. So far, no corresponding recall has been posted on the FDA web site or on any state web site. A call to the telephone number provided on the Food City web site took me directly to "QA," where I was told that this was a "product withdrawal" and not a "product recall." The gentleman who spoke to me revealed nothing else – not his name, not his company's name, and not the reason for the product "withdrawal".

Yesterday's recall announced by Parkers Farm is completely unrelated to the hash brown potatoes recall. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Parkers Farm has recalled the following products after the state agency found Listeria monocytogenes in some of the Company's finished products:
  • 16-ounce peanut butter in square plastic containers (tub with snap-on lid), including creamy, crunchy, honey creamy and honey crunchy varieties with sell-by dates between 11/14/2010 and 12/31/2010;
  • 34-ounce peanut butter in round plastic containers (tub with snap-on lid), including creamy and crunchy varieties with sell-by dates between 8/11/2010 and 9/30/2010;
  • 7-ounce bagel spreads in white plastic containers (tub with snap-on lid), including garden veggie, wild berry, strawberry, apple cinnamon, and honey walnut varieties with sell-by dates between 5/13/2010 and 6/30/2010;
  • 14-ounce dips and spreads in square plastic containers (tub with snap-on lid), including jalapeno nacho, pimento and salsa con queso varieties with sell-by dates between 8/11/2010 and 9/30/2010;
  • 8-ounce, 12 ounce and 16 ounce cold pack cheese in round or square plastic containers (tub with snap-on lid), including sharp cheddar, bacon, onion, smoked cheddar, swiss almond, horseradish, garlic, port wine and swiss and cheddar varieties with sell-by dates between 11/14/2010 and 12/31/2010; and
  • 16-ounce salsa in square plastic containers (tub with snap-on lid), including hot, mild, garlic, black bean and fire-roasted varieties, with sell-by dates between 3/14/2010 and 4/30/2010.
The recalled products are distributed across the United States under the Parkers and Parkers Farm labels in the following grocery chains: Hy-Vee, Cub, Rainbow, Lunds/Byerly’s, Target, Whole Foods, Jewel, Dominicks or Marsh stores. Parkers Farm also distributes its foods under private label brands, and supplies the food service industry. One of the private label customers is Kroger Co., which has recalled three Kroger brand cold pack cheeses, sold in certain Kroger, Dillons, Jay C and Shelbyville stores. Other store-brand recalls are likely to follow.

As Canadians learned in 2008, Listeria monocytogenes outbreaks can be difficult to detect. The microbe has a long incubation period – as long as 70 days – and rarely causes a serious illness unless the victim is very young, very old, immuno-compromised, or pregnant. But when it infects a susceptible individual, it can be deadly.

Anyone who has eaten one of these foods within the last two months and begins to feel unwell should seek immediate medical attention and mention the possible association with a Listeria monocytogenes-contaminated food.

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