Listeria and public health

Friend of the barfblog and rock’n’roller Roy Costa writes on his that Listeria monocytogenes are hardy infectious bacteria, widely distributed in nature, and difficult to control. Listeria monocytogenes previously known to veterinary science as a pathogen of sheep, first came to light as a major foodborne agent when the largest and most deadly outbreaks in U.S. history occurred in queso fresco cheese manufactured in Los Angeles, California. It claimed the lives of approximately 50 persons and infected 86 known victims.

listeria4From this time forward the public health response has been to actively track cases identify outbreaks and to put into place initiatives to reduce incidence. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was instrumental in developing protocols for the meat industry to follow to control the organism in USDA regulated products. Listeria monocytogenes is considered to be so pathogenic that in the US there is no tolerance for its presence in food. There has been some success in controlling Listeria monocytogenes in USDA commodities, but over the last 3 years or so we have seen this agent get thorough the public health safety net an alarming number of times.

We have seen Listeria monocytogenes in cantaloupe (2011) kill 30 people, and infect 146 known cases, and outbreaks and or recalls involving several brands of ice cream, sliced apples, candy apples and pasta salad.

Listeria monocytogenes is a uniquely challenging pathogen with novel characteristics. It is psychrotropic, growing at temperatures below 32°F. This important ability gives the bacteria a competitive advantage, as the less hardy spoilage organisms and other competitors are not able to grow, or grow as quickly. Long periods in the cold chain during distribution of a product coupled with a long shelf life are important factors that increase the risk of growth.

Once the organism enters a food production environment, it can create environmental niches that allow for propagation on surfaces such as floors, drains, walls, and equipment. Bio-films are complex substrates of adherent cells frequently embedded within a self-produced matrix of an extracellular polymeric substance. Listeria monocytogenes can establish itself in such substrates further reducing the ability for normal cleaning and sanitizing to remove it. The colonization by Listeria monocytogenes of food processing equipment is an associated factor in many outbreaks. In the cantaloupe outbreak of 2011, investigators found the packinghouse’s packing line to be contaminated, in the 2015 ice cream outbreak in involving the Blue Bell Ice Cream Company; the bacteria were also found in the company’s equipment.

roy.costaAfter a food is processed, the bacteria can remain for extended periods in the food and survive to a customer. Ready-to-eat prepared foods then become the vehicle for one of the most hazardous of all bacteria, with a mortality of around 30%; especially at risk are the elderly, and those with underlying medical conditions. Pregnant women are often included in the victims of outbreaks along with the their unborn, a very tragic consequence. The foods implicated in outbreaks are varied, and include hot dogs, luncheon meat, meat spreads, smoked fish, cantaloupe, and ice cream and candy apples. Attempting to warn at risk persons is made almost impossible, as almost all processed foods and many fruits and vegetables are prone to infection.

Given the growing magnitude of this public health challenge, we need a strong public health response targeted specifically to deal with Listeria monocytogenes. The following recommendations are offered:

• A multidisciplinary committee is needed to create a coordinated national response. This group should advise the food processing industry and other at-risk points of the food supply chain about controls such as environmental sanitation and verification.

• The medical profession must play an increased role in co-ordinated efforts to better inform consumers and at-risk persons about the prevention of listeriosis.

• A unilateral requirement is needed to require all food processors to perform effective and ongoing testing of equipment and environments. This should be coupled with encouraging the application of in-plant micro-assay methods of detection using QT-PCR and other rapid techniques.

• The eventual implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act and Preventive Controls rules will provide the needed support to strengthen the current public health response.

’No enforced laws in produce safety;’ listeria-in-cantaloupe cantaloupe hot potato passed to the auditor

Roy Costa of Environ Health Associates, Inc. writes:

We will not see then end of the Jensen/Frontera/ Primus Auditor issue for some time. While there is plenty of room for criticism of Jensen, Fonterra, and Primus there are also problems with FDA, and this tragic incident has become a hot potato being passed to and fro by Congress.

I keep reading FDA’s take on this as if they had an actual law in place that people had to follow, and actual inspectors in the field for enforcement, and an educational arm. FDA still has no muscle on the farm, just a law now on the books that is lagging behind. Until they get their act together, it’s not fair to blame the industry for not getting it together when they themselves cannot.

I am not defending anyone, but if I were, I could look at the 2009 FDA Guidance for melon and wonder where it says that Jensen should have used a chlorinated hydro cooler to cool melons. FDA says it’s safe to use flowing water of satisfactory quality without an antimicrobial to cool melons. Nowhere does it say melons had to be pre-cooled, anywhere. In fact according to FDA, melons can be field packed and placed directly into a cooler. A hydro cooler (this is a refrigerated, circulated water bath, tank or drench that may also contain ice) is recommended, but the flowing water method is allowable, according to the guidance. Any auditor who would read the Melon Guidance of 2009 would have said FDA has no requirement to use an antimicrobial in single pass wash water.

And here we have more from Leavitt and Partners, a consulting firm, taking shots at the auditing company from left field and just repeating the double talk while not really understanding what they are saying. But of course, this is business.

This whole discussion is beginning to smell and is turning into a witch hunt and a diversion for the fact that we have next to no currently enforced laws in produce safety. As result, we see systematic failure of the food safety protection they would afford us. And so industry has taken on itself this huge challenge of agricultural food safety and failures are occurring, and will continue. Third party audits are not designed for public health protection, and even if strengthened they will not take their place.

And when and how does FDA propose to notify the industry about the minimum requirements under the FSMA? Most folks I speak to don’t have a clue what to do.

This sad scene points not just to failure of audits, but reveals food safety at the primary production level of our food supply has been neglected. It’s going to take decades to educate farmers and to fix the problems spread over millions of acres of land and thousands of farming operations. The failures include FDA not being able to enforce rules or educate the industry, and if I sound like I am repeating myself, I am.

The third party food safety audit system was never intended to stand in the place of regulation. If we as auditors were supposed to enforce FDA Guidance, and now Laws, just how is that supposed to work? There is no mechanism for that.
Where are the thousands of competent people to do this job, the army who understand agriculture and how to do a produce risk assessment, commodity by commodity? How are small producers like the Jensen brothers supposed to cope with the detailed scientific risk assessment he and now thousands like him must by law perform?

This situation has got to be solved by industry and FDA working together, and proper funding and research.

Fix the mess first with regulations and guidance, then maybe there is some justification that Jensen and the rest of us should have known better.

Passing the hot potato is only going to burn more consumers.

Roy Costa does Tampa home kitchen inspections – and here’ s the video

The suave and sassy Roy Costa showed up on Tampa television last night, walking viewers through a couple of home kitchen food safety inspections, including the kitchen of ABC Action News Dirty Dining reporter, Wendy Ryan.

(I can’t actually confirm the broadcast date, but the clip showed up on the web last night.)

The story says that Gretchen Barnes is a busy new mom with twin 7-month-old boys, Beckett and Eli, and has much less time to do things like clean the kitchen.

Gretchen was a trooper to allow former health inspector Roy Costa to come to her house and do a mock inspection on her kitchen.

Right away, Roy found a critical violation: Eggs over five months old in her refrigerator. The package had a printed expiration date of September 17, 2010.

Roy said one of the most contaminated areas of the kitchen is the sink drain, because of the disposal and waste spewing up from the bottom.

Roy says it’s a good idea to disinfect the sink drain once a week. So how do you do that?

"Make about a 200-part-per-million dilution of this bleach. Because we know if you have the proper water to bleach, the activity of the chlorine that’s in there is going to be a lot more effective," Roy explained.

So in a bucket of room temperature water, less than a capful of clorox would be enough to create the right level of disinfectant.

And Roy says sanitizing the baby’s toys with that same diluted solution is a good idea.

Sophie the giraffe, a previous favorite of our 2-year-old Sorenne, was somewhat dirty in the twins’ house, so Roy recommended a soap and water wash before sterilizing the twins’ Sophie in the solution for at least 5 minutes. 

Foodborne illness outbreaks come from multiple failures, not acts of god

My friend Roy Costa (right, pretty much as shown) writes that he has now been involved in over 60 investigations of foodborne illness as an expert, for both plaintiffs and defendants, and concludes:

• most outbreaks that result in lawsuits have evidence of multiple major sanitation deficiencies;

• most have pest problems as part of the documentation;

• many have serious time and temperature issues; and,

• many have personal hygiene issues.

It seems like to have an outbreak that results in a lawsuit requires a lot of negligence. It is usually not some failure at a CCP, or an invalid HACCP plan due to some error in thinking. It’s gross sanitation issues that put people in this spot more often than not. Those that have at least a semi-scientific program with oversight of any type and are managing basic sanitation adequately seem less likely to get into deep trouble with litigation, and if they do, there is less likely to be a smoking gun.

Totally agree. Multiple failures that make an investigator wonder, why didn’t this happen earlier?

Roy Costa to star on Dr. Oz Tuesday; Powell dresses up and gets in a couple of zingers

In the beginning there was Oprah, and all was ideal.

Oprah begat Dr. Phil, and all was ideal, at least until his ratings started to fall.

Then Dr. Oz appeared – 55 times on Oprah – and Oprah eventually begated Dr. Oz.

The Dr. Oz show started in September 2009 and is syndicated throughout the U.S.

After hours of providing material to Dr. Oz producers about supermarket food safety, I got the call – be in New York City, Studio 6A where Conan used to shoot, we want you on the show.

On Monday, Oct. 19, 2009, Amy, Sorenne and I (I don’t like to travel without my family, that aging thing) drove from the Little Apple of Manhattan (Kansas) to Kansas City and then flew to the Big Apple of Manhattan (New York).

We got picked up by a big car and stayed at a nice hotel in Gotham.


The next morning, Amy, Sorenne and I ventured off to 30 Rock – Rockefeller Center – for the taping. My friend Roy Costa was also there, and they gave us a dressing room with muffins and water.

It soon became apparent that 10-month-old Sorenne was not going to be comfortable waiting around for the excess of television –lots of waiting around for a couple of minutes of screen time – so Amy and Sorenne went back to the hotel.

Roy got to share the stage with Dr. Oz because of his experience as an inspector and he did a great job bobbing and weaving, trying to keep the show on track. I got to be the expert in the audience with a couple of pithy statements.

Our supermarket food safety bit is competing with the National Sex Experiment — a 50-state, 90-day incentive challenging you to have the best sex of your life — and a bunch of D-list celebrities who need the help of Dr. Oz. It is scheduled to be broadcast Tuesday, Nov. 3.

And, as in TV, the show was done with us just like that. We walked around Times Square a bit, took in the sideshow, and then went home.

Safefoods blog

My friend Roy Costa has started blogging, adding his considerable insight into all matters food safety.

Roy says that is a publication of Environ Health Associates that provides insight into public health protection and the fields of environmental health and food safety. The topics covered are multifaceted and deal with many of the less discussed but critical areas of food safety such as industry self control and self regulation, privatization of food safety, the changing paradigms of government agencies and public health protection programs, and the political and economic forces at work behind the scenes driving these changes. In depth analysis is provided on the key threats to public health posed by contamination in the food supply. Foodborne illness outbreaks reported in the media are investigated, we provide commentary on the chain of infection and offer our insights into factors associated with the spread of illness. We provide a compendium of our Food Safety Update newsletter and links to programs developed by Professor Roy E Costa RS, MS, MBA, of the Walt Disney Centers for Hospitality and Culinary Arts in Orlando Florida. All comments are his own, based on almost 30 years in the field of food safety and do not reflect the opinions of any entity other than Roy E. Costa. Environ Health Associates, Inc. can be found on the worldwide web at

That’s a mouthful. here’s Roy playing the guitar (middle) in the photo below.