Seen and heard: Listeria in Blue Bell ice cream

As the coverage of the 10 case/3 death listeriosis outbreak focuses on the expansion of the recall many are looking at the fallout and environmental and product testing in ice cream facilities

Rachel Abrams and Hiroko Tabuchi of the New York Times report on how customers might react:

Analysts voiced concerns that Blue Bell had acted too late, as the recalls eroded customer confidence. Restoring trust as the summer sales season approaches will be difficult, they say.bluebell3

“When there’s a recall and somebody does something quickly and when they handle it properly, we forgive it,” said Phil Lempert, food industry analyst for “When it’s the entire product line or the entire company,” he said, “people are very concerned.”

“Food and safety recalls are something that retailers take very seriously,” said Dya Campos, a spokeswoman for HEB Grocery. She said the grocer was referring all queries from shoppers to Blue Bell and that it would independently assess whether to carry the brand again once its products were deemed safe.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler was also quoted about the perception of expanding recalls:

“Limiting the recall might seem like a good idea. But then if you keep expanding your recall, it’s a death by a thousand cuts. You look like you’re dragging your feet.”

Karin Robinson – Jacobs and Sherry Jacobson of the Dallas Morning News dive right into Blue Bell’s response.

The company acknowledged that when it issued its first recall notice, portraying the problem as limited, isolated and small, it did so before thoroughly testing for Listeria throughout its operation.

One food safety expert did not fault the company for its initial brevity, but said subsequent events show that the company expressed confidence too soon.

“Maybe the cleaning and sanitation program that Blue Bell was using wasn’t adequate,” said Benjamin Chapman, a food safety expert with North Carolina State University. “As more samples came back … it highlights that this problem was larger than they originally thought.”

Blue Bell spokeswoman Jenny Van Dorf said that before the initial March 13 recall “we were regularly testing our products at that time for bacteria. There was nothing that indicated that there was any issue,” she said.

She added that the production line identified in the initial recall was in an isolated area of the main Brenham plant, which added to the company’s sense that the problem also was isolated. So far, two lines in Brenham and two in Broken Arrow, Okla., have turned up traces of Listeria.

“We’ve always followed industry standards with testing our product,” she said. “But now going forward, we will specifically test for Listeria.”

Van Dorf said Blue Bell has hired an outside lab and will place any newly produced product in cold storage while waiting for results from tests specifically designed to detect Listeria. The wait could be several days.

The new procedure, called “test and hold” marks a more costly departure from the company’s past testing protocols and lengthens the time before product returns to market.

Chapman noted that there is no federal mandate for how food manufacturers are to test. He said “industry standards” are more like common practices.

But he cautioned against the urge to mandate specific testing methods because each plant is so different.

“I think you get into a very dangerous situation when you start to say there should be a minimum amount of environmental [testing] that goes on because each business has their own particulars. What we need are really good operators who understand where pathogens come from and they know what to do to … reduce the risk.”

Raleigh NBC affiliate WNCN asked me about the outbreak, you can see the interview below.
WNCN: News, Weather, Raleigh, Durham, Fayetteville

Testing or audits: value is in how the results are used

Third-party audits and third-party micro sampling can provide a snapshot view of what is going on in an operation. Observations of actions and document review might be an indicator as to whether the organization has the system to manage risks; sampling (of equipment, product or inputs) also might provide some insights into whether systems are working. Both are only useful if whomever requested them does something with the results.

According to court records reported by Ryan Foley of AP, Wright County Eggs knew of high rates of Salmonella Enteriditis in their flock, but whether they did anything to reduce the likelihood of the pathogen spreading to egg-eaters is unclear. Salmonella from Wright County Eggs was the source of an outbreak linked to over one thousand illnesses in 2010.

An Iowa State University scientist found evidence that sick hens at farms owned by an Iowa egg producer were "almost certainly" laying eggs contaminated with salmonella months before one of the nation’s largest outbreaks of food-borne illness came to light, newly released records show. ISU’s Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory found salmonella in manure at several Iowa egg-laying plants and in the internal organs of their birds, which were dying at unusually high rates, about four months before the August 2010 recall of 550 million eggs linked to the outbreak, records show.

DeCoster’s farms had asked the laboratory to test for salmonella at its Iowa egg plants as they prepared for federal rules to take effect in July 2010 that required mandatory testing for the bacteria at different stages of production. In January 2010, scientists collected samples from several plants. Testing the next month detected salmonella, and additional samples were collected.

By late April 2010, scientists had discovered that 43 percent of DeCoster’s poultry houses in Iowa were testing positive for salmonella, emails show. Around the same time, DeCoster’s managers started noticing a high mortality rate of chickens at some plants and sent dozens of carcasses testing.

It is not clear what DeCoster’s operations did after receiving the reports. Charles Hofacre, a University of Georgia scientist who was consulting on the companies’ safety program, sent a May 28 email to DeCoster executives proposing several steps to clean up the conditions, warning, "We have to get this level of SE knocked down!"


This is how irrelevant Washington, D.C is when it comes to setting food safety policy

Washington can set a minimal food safety standard, and taxpayers should get something for their money, but the resources and time spent lobbying the politicians and bureaucrats seem to have a low return on investment.

Tomorrow’s USA Today reports that a senator on the committee overseeing the National School Lunch Program called Monday for the government to raise its standards for meat sent to schools across the nation because McDonald’s, Costco, Burger King, and Jack in the Box all do a better job of food safety sampling.

For Thanksgiving, I got campylobacter; food safety isn’t simple, neither are stool samples

It’s been a poopy couple of weeks. Literally. Turns out that I’ve been dealing with a Campylobacter infection for a while which has knocked me on my ass. Here’s the story.

Two weeks ago I was preparing to head to Manhattan (Kansas) to hang out with Doug, chat about a few projects, give a talk and take in the K State/Mizzou football game (with tailgating). The trip happened, but I gave a somewhat incoherent talk while sweating, slept most of my visit away, left the football game at halftime and spent two of the nights rushing to the bathroom every hour to evacuate my intestines (which sounded a bit like I was pouring a glass of water directly into the toilet). I wanted to blame Doug. He brings out the best in people.

As we walked to the game I remember saying to Doug that I wished the illness was a hangover because I knew there would be a defined end to it. It wasn’t. I didn’t eat much beyond Cheerios, yogurt and Gatorade for about a week. It was pretty nasty, probably the worst I can remember feeling.
After a feverish trip home and crashing for the remainder of the weekend I made an appointment to see the doctor to get things checked out. At this point I was a bit scared, tired of spending a couple of hours a day on the toilet and had a tender tush. I was also washing my hands like a mad man. With a one-year-old around I was super paranoid about negligently passing anything on to him. Of course, one of his favorite things to do is to stick his hands in the toilet, which is a bit like licking a raw turkey.

At the doctor, I described my symptoms, had a rectal exam (fun) and was given the materials needed for a stool sample. I’m not going to lie; I was a bit excited by the stool sample stuff. I was looking for anything to cheer myself up and I kept thinking about the ironic blog post at the end of the ordeal. Or as my friend Steve said “Wow – [Campylobacter] sucks. Although once you’re healthy again, it automatically becomes funny.” Yes it does.

The idea of stool sample harvesting was way more fun than the actual act. It’s amazing any foodborne illnesses are confirmed with stool samples because the process is a bit nuts.  It took some thinking to figure out how to catch the sample without contaminating it with water or urine. The final decision was to use the bucket from our salad spinner – which has now been retired – and place it in the toilet bowl. I then proceeded to do what I had been doing eight or nine times a day and produced a sample. I had three vials to fill (one for C. difficile, one for parasites and another for other pathogens), and a bonus margarine-like tub for “other things.” The vials were easy, they came with their own spoons. After ten swipes across the base of the former salad spinner I was able to messily get the rest of the sample collected in the tub. Then came the clean-up.  This whole episode took me about 45 minutes and made me think I was on Dirty Jobs.

I proudly returned to the doctor’s office with samples in hand and then waited a few days. On Monday I received a call from the physician’s assistant explaining that I’m now the owner of a culture-confirmed Campylobacter infection. The doctor prescribed some ciprofloxacin and I’m feeling much better than I was 13 days ago.

My stool is beginning to resemble what it did before this whole ordeal, but I’m not totally done. Although rare, I could still develop arthritis problems or Guillain-Barr syndrome (an immune system issue that can lead to paralysis) but I hope not.

I’ve been telling folks over the past couple of days about the campylobacterosis and the responses can be grouped into two categories: “that’s ironic;” and, “where do you think you got it?” The second question is more interesting and easier to answer: I’m not sure.

The Campylobacter could have come from lots of sources. It might have been something Dani or I did at home.  We try to avoid cross-contamination and I’m religious about using a food thermometer, but those practices reduce, not eliminate, risks. I eat out a few times a week and put my trust in the front-line staff at restaurants to do what they can to keep me from getting sick. I also eat a lot of fresh produce that could be contaminated with fecal matter pretty much anywhere from farm-to-fork. Who knows? 

Being a food safety nerd I’m still waiting on follow-up information on the typing and whether I’m part of a larger cluster of illnesses.  If I am, maybe that will help answer the source question. To be continued.

What this incident has shown me, better than I understood before, is that foodborne illness really isn’t as simple as some make it out to be. I like to think that I have some basic knowledge about what I can do to avoid it.  But I still spent 13 days on the toilet and I don’t really know what led to the fun.