Tracking Food Contamination Outbreaks

There is dramatic evidence for consumers that food safety measures are increasingly sophisticated, which is a good thing.

With little public attention, several recent and related recalls of a variety of food items suspected of being contaminated with Listeria have been carried out regionally and nationally since March. That’s the bad news. The good news is that science was put to use to link the tainted products to a single food producer, CRF Frozen Foods, Inc. in Pasco, WA. This was accomplished in large part because state and federal regulators were able to connect reports on eight Listeria-infected people from California, Maryland, and Washington to vegetable products produced by CRF Frozen Foods using both epidemiological and laboratory evidence.

frozen-veg-aw-620x0The evidence began accumulating when, as part of a routine product sampling program, the Ohio Department of Agriculture collected packages of frozen vegetable products from a retail location and isolated Listeria monocytogenes from True Goodness by Meijer brand frozen organic white sweet cut corn and frozen organic petite green peas. Both products were produced by CRF Frozen Foods.

Based upon the positive findings in Ohio, CRF recalled 11 frozen vegetable products on April 22, because they were suspected of Listeria contamination. Further testing using genome sequencing to isolate Listeria in the frozen product clinched the case. The isolate was closely related genetically to bacterial isolates in the stool of people who had been ill after eating the contaminated product. On May 2, 2016, following a conversation with the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC, CRF Frozen Foods expanded its recall to include all of its frozen organic and traditional fruit and vegetable products manufactured or processed in CRF Frozen Foods’ Pasco facility since May 1, 2014. It also initiated a series of secondary food recalls from companies supplied by CRF, including Meijer, Kroger and ConAgra Foods. Approximately 358 consumer products sold under 42 separate brands were recalled.

Sophisticated Sleuthing

The importance of this laboratory sleuthing cannot be under-estimated. Until recently, state and federal regulators and health officials had a difficult time linking food illness outbreaks. They could do it, but it took weeks and sometimes months to determine whether contaminations originated with one supplier or brand. Advances in microbiology and genome sequencing give regulators highly effective tools to establish that contaminated products that infected people in scattered locations came from one source.

There’s another reason this series of related recalls is important. It demonstrates beyond question that the nation’s food supply chain is not only inextricably linked, but also — and because of those links — highly vulnerable to widespread outbreaks of food-borne illness. CRF Frozen Foods supplies not just retailers, but also national brand producers and downstream wholesalers.

Chasing down all these potential leads takes time, effort and staff resources that regulators simply don’t have. But with the advent of new scientific methodology, we are likely to see more quick action to prevent large-scale food illness outbreaks by getting suspect products off the shelves and out of homes as quickly as possible. Doing that — moving swiftly to control outbreaks — is very definitely a good thing.

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