‘News, it just repeats itself’ What to do about Listeria

Chipotle is trying old-school PR with its legal whinging and free diarrhea burritos.

Outbreaks and recalls related to Listeria can provide new-school lessons.

lettuce.skull.noroBut don’t expect industry to adopt any of the suggestions.

In 2008, Maple Leaf Foods cold cuts laden with Listeria killed 24 Canadians and sickened another 50.

At the time, CEO Michael McCann was praised for his communication and management efforts to reign in Listeria.

I, and several others, were underwhelmed.

So it’s time to dust off that 2008 checklist and see how Dole, CRF Frozen Foods in Pasco, Wash. and SunOpta of Crookston, Minn. go.

There are arguments to be made about the U.S. zero-tolerance for Listeria policy (other countries have set limits) but that could take years to be resolved. Meanwhile, product is/was going out the door, disease trackers are getting really good at picking up previously undetectable outbreaks using whole-genome sequencing, and consumers need a confidence builder.

So:

  • A full accounting of who knew what when, from both the companies involved and regulators. But more important from the companies, because they do thousands of Listeria tests annually. In 2014, Maple Leaf performed more than 180,000 tests across its operations to detect any bacteria or pathogens as part of the company’s food safety program. Great.
  • Make those test results publicly available.
  • Warning labels. Someone will say, like Mr. McCann in 2008, that listeria is everywhere, and that, “All food plants and supermarkets have some amount of listeria.” Maybe a label should say, “Listeria is everywhere, don’t feed deli meats or other refrigerated ready-to-eat foods to pregnant women and old people. They may die.” Or do what Publix supermarkets, based in Florida, does. Cheese and cold-cuts sliced in the deli are put in a bag with a label that says, “The Publix Deli is committed to the highest quality fresh cold cuts & cheeses. Therefore we recommend all cold cuts are best if used within three days of purchase. And all cheese items are best if used within four days of purchase.”
  • Don’t tell us the plant passed an audit or is inspected. That is a minimal standard, and why do outbreaks keep happening from food that was audited or inspected or both?
  • Market food safety efforts at retail.

Because listeria is everywhere.