On March 10, 2016, Food Poisoning Bulletin broke the story that Dole knew about Listeria contamination in its plant long before this year’s deadly listeriosis outbreak that was linked to its salad products. Carla Gillespie submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Food and Drug Administration in February 2016, asking for reports of inspections at Dole facilities, particularly the company’s plant in Springfield, Ohio. We were the first news outlet to do so. Now the Justice Department is opening an investigation into that outbreak and how Dole handled it.
In the documents we received, the company found Listeria in the plant in early 2014 and “infrequently” in the years before that. In fact, in 2014 Dole recalled many of its bagged salads for possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination. No illnesses were linked to that recall. A recall in 2012, also for Listeria contamination, trigged an inspection that found many problems in that plant.
FDA inspectors found that the plant was not constructed in a way that allowed the building to be kept in good condition. There were cracks in the floor, ruts in the floor that were holding standing water, and rust and peeling paint on the walls. There were also grooves in the cutting surfaces, condensate on the ceiling, food residue in many locations, and leaking water lines.
Listeria monocytogenes bacteria thrives in moist and wet environments. Once the bacteria is introduced into an environment, which happens very easily, it is very difficult to eradicate. Standing water in a plant is a clear indication that there may be problems with contamination. The FDA inspectors “encouraged” Dole to fix these problems in 2012.
When a test indicates that Listeria is present in a facility, corporate officials should immediate order further testing. There are five Listeria species that are not threatening to human health. One, Listeria monocytogenes, is deadly. Many tests only indicate that Listeria is present, but do not identify the particular species. The only way to know which species of Listeria is in a facility is to conduct further testing.
Once Listeria monocytogenes is confirmed in a facility, company management must order a complete and thorough cleaning and a program to eradicate and control for this pathogen. There is zero tolerance for the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat foods, such as salad greens, and for good reason. One of the problems inherent in mass produced and processed foods is that bacterial contamination in one small batch, or contamination in the water in the plant, is easily spread to other products, especially when there is no heat treatment, or kill step, used to make that product.
The Listeria monocytogenes outbreak linked to Dole products, which were recalled in January 2016, sickened at least 33 people in the United States and in Canada. All of those sickened in the U.S. were hospitalized. Four people died, although the three deaths in Canada could not be definitely tied to the contaminated products. The Springfield plant closed in January 2016 after the outbreak was confirmed; it just reopened in a “limited capacity” on April 26, 2016.
The 70 day period of incubation for listeriosis, the illness caused by this deadly bacteria, has passed, so people no longer need to be worried about developing that illness if they ate recalled Dole salads. But it behooves everyone to pay attention to food recalls, and to insist that the FDA and corporations take the threat of bacterial contamination more seriously.