The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced this week that the Listeria monocytogenes outbreak associated with hard-boiled egg products from Almark Foods, LLC has ended. Additionally, the agency said that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has concluded its investigation.
Although the outbreak is over and the products are past their “Best By” date of March 2, 2020, the CDC is cautioning consumers, foodservices/restaurants, and retailers to check their refrigerators and cool storage areas for any of these hard-boiled egg products. They should be thrown away and not eaten or served in any form or fashion.
The Almark plant in Gainesville, Georgia is not manufacturing products at this time, said the CDC.
ILLNESSES, DEATH DUE TO THE LISTERIA OUTBREAK
The Listeria outbreak affected five states that caused eight illnesses and five hospitalizations with one death, which occurred near Houston, Texas. CDC reports are not clear as to when the death occurred. The agency said that Listeria specimens were collected between April 10, 2017, and Dec. 7, 2019.
These specimens, analyzed with whole-genome sequencing (WGS) to determine the DNA of microorganisms, matched samples were taken from the facility during FDA inspections.
HARD-BOILED EGG PACKAGING: WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The eggs were sold in many different containers including whole hard-boiled eggs in packages of two to six known as pillow packs or pouches as well as protein snack boxes along with fruit and pretzels, cheese, crackers, and/or deli meats.
They were sold nationwide. The recall eventually expanded into the third week of January of this year to include foods like stuffing/cornbread dressing and ramen. View the full list of recalled products here.
THE FDA AND ALMARK FOODS
The FDA’s first investigation of the plant occurred as long ago as 2011. The agency did not take any action against the manufacturer on this visit. After a subsequent investigation on Feb. 13, 2019, a warning letter was issued dated July 22. A follow-up investigation occurred on December 13. Samples were taken from the facility environment by the FDA during visits.
Almark voluntarily recalled some hard-boiled egg products on December 20 and expanded their recall to include all hard-boiled egg products on Dec. 23. Additional recalls continued for associated products through Jan. 23, 2020.
WHY CAN’T THIS BACTERIA BEGONE?
Listeria is a challenge to eradicate from food manufacturing premises because it likes to live in floor drains and equipment crevices. It forms biofilms, slimy layers of bacteria that grow together, and these can fly into the air as microscopic particles during scrubbing or high-pressure water applications. The particles can then land on equipment and food contact surfaces and on the food itself.
Equipment with nooks and crannies that does not come apart completely can hold onto Listeria. The bacteria like to hide in the interior of slicing machines and under its covers and guards.
Because it is a “refrigerator bacteria,” Listeria presents another cleaning obstacle for consumers and manufacturers. Most bacterial growth stops in cold or freezing temperatures, but that simply gives Listeria less competition. It can grow at temperatures lower than freezing although it multiplies more slowly at cooler temperatures.
SICKNESS FROM LISTERIA
Yet another difficulty is knowing when Listeria is responsible for illness because it can take anywhere from a single day to three months for symptoms to appear. The average incubation period is a month.
Fever, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are routine in mild infections. Invasive listeriosis can add a stiff neck, confusion, poor balance, and convulsions. Listeriosis can lead to death in the elderly, children and infants, and people with weak immune systems.
Pregnant women need to be extra careful because they are more likely to experience illness and even mild cases can lead to serious complications, such as miscarriage and stillbirth. Meningitis is often seen in newborns whose mothers are infected with Listeria.
Antibiotics are the treatment for listeriosis and are most effective if used early. According to the CDC, Listeria infects about 1,600 people in the U.S. annually.
SPIC AND SPAN: CLEANING AND SANITIZING AT HOME, IN FOODSERVICES, & RETAIL OUTLETS
The CDC advises consumers, foodservice operators, and retailers to use extra care in cleaning and sanitizing any surfaces or storage areas that may have had contact with the contaminated egg products to prevent cross-contamination.
Listeria loves moisture, so thoroughness is required for areas that are humid and damp. All display cases and storage areas in foodservices and retail stores should be cleaned and sanitized with commercial products on a regular schedule.
At home, you can make your own sanitizer by adding a teaspoon of bleach to a quart (4 cups) of water. Use this to wash down the walls and areas where suspect foods were stored. Prep surfaces like countertops and sinks should also be disinfected.
FOODS AT-RISK FOR LISTERIA
- Ready-to-eat foods like smoked seafood, deli-prepared salads, ready-to-eat lunch meats, and hot dogs
- Soft cheeses like “queso fresco” or Panela, brie, Camembert, feta, and blue cheeses
- Unpasteurized milk and products made with it
- Fruits and vegetables that grow near the soil, like melons, root vegetables, and squash
- Wash all fruits and veggies under running water and scrub with a brush to remove the bacteria from craggy cantaloupe rinds.
- Before cutting, wash fruits and vegetables to prevent bacteria from the knife contaminating the flesh. This is especially important if fresh produce will be eaten raw.
- Reheat prepared foods like hot dogs until steaming. The heat will help to kill Listeria (and other bacteria).
Pregnant women, the elderly, people with poor immune systems, and children younger than five have an increased risk of infection. For safety’s sake, people in these groups or their caretakers may choose to always reheat ready-to-eat meats.
WASH YOUR HANDS!
Experts say that the best way to lower your risk of contracting food poisoning or any other illness (including COVID-19!) is to wash hands thoroughly and often. (Or use an alcohol-based sanitizer if you can find one.)
Lather up after using the bathroom and before preparing and eating food. Some people like to wear disposable plastic gloves when prepping foods that have a higher risk of foodborne pathogens, i.e. raw meats. Be sure and wash hands before you slip the gloves on and after you take them off.
Since interest in handwashing is at an all-time high due to fears of the COVID-19, here is a video showing a 20-second scrub and rinse.
ICE CREAM AND CANTALOUPES: RECENT MEMORIES OF LISTERIA OUTBREAKS
Blue Bell Ice Cream
Our most recent national memory of a gut-wrenching Listeria outbreak is the saga of Blue Bell Ice Cream. It was the number three ice cream in the country when 10 people in four states were hospitalized and three died in Kansas after eating Bluebell ice cream contaminated with Listeria in the spring of 2015.
Blue Bell’s finances were shaky after recalling 8 million gallons of ice cream and laying off a large part of its workforce. A healthy infusion of cash from investors that included Texas billionaire Sid Bass kept the iconic ice cream brand afloat after the recall.
The ice cream company has yet to return to its pre-2015 position in the market. Bluebell ice cream was sold in 23 states before the 2015 Listeria outbreak, said Katie Gibson in a report for CBS News. Currently, it can be found in 18 states, according to the Blue Bell website.
The FDA called this the deadliest Listeria outbreak since 1924.
In 2011, the CDC reported that 33 deaths were caused by eating cantaloupes contaminated with Listeria that were sourced from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo. This outbreak spread across 28 states, causing 143 hospitalizations out of 147 cases, according to the agency, which also reported that one pregnant woman had a miscarriage.
Just before the outbreak, President Obama had signed into law a bill with food safety regulations geared toward prevention rather than simply detection of food safety problems. The expansive Listeria outbreak from cantaloupes illustrated the importance and need for this legislation.
In a rare judicial move, a judge imposed a sentence on the Jensen brothers, calling for probation of five years and hefty fines.
FAST FORWARD TO HARD-BOILED EGGS
As the Almark Listeria outbreak demonstrates, food safety is a never-ending battle. Vigilance is necessary to keep bacteria like Listeria from colonizing manufacturing equipment and hiding in the production environment and to keep the public safe, especially if pathogens do escape and travel into the retail and restaurant worlds.
This is especially true in 2020 as bacteria develop increasing resistance to the antibiotics used to beat them back.
Copyright © 2019 Jani Hall Leuschel