July 24, 2024

Listeria was Top Pathogen Source of Recalls and Related Deaths in 2021

In-depth analysis from Food Poisoning Bulletin 

Listeria was the top pathogen source of food recalls and related deaths in 2021, according to an in-depth analysis by Food Poisoning Bulletin. After our second annual analysis of recalls for meat and poultry, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), we turned our attention to recalls for all other foods which are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Listeria findings are some of the key takeaways from our deep dive into 2021 food recalls.

How We Did This

We focussed on the recalls that FDA gathers from press releases and other public notices and publishes on its website. While these represent only a portion of all annual recalls for FDA-regulated foods, (we’ll just call them “food recalls” from here on out) these are the recalls we, and other news outlets, regularly cover.

When tallying things up, we also tried to condense these recalls into recall events. For example, if there is a recall and later an expansion of that recall, we counted that as one recall. If a food company issues a recall and a grocery store that sells the recalled food item issues its own recall, that is also counted as one recall.

In some cases, recalls that first appeared on the FDA website in one year were actually issued one or even two years prior. Whenever this occurred, we moved these recalls to the year they were actually issued.

What We Found

We looked at five years of recall data and found that, unlike meat and poultry recalls which hit an all-time low in 2020, there were actually more food recalls in 2020 (300) than there were in 2019  (211) or 2018 (168). In 2017, a peak year for food recalls, the total was 386.  In 2021, the total number of recalls (232) was lower than in 2020 and more in line with the totals reported in 2019 and 2018.

The most common reason for food recalls in 2021 (and every other year) was “misbranding” or “undeclared allergen.” Our focus was on recalls for potential contamination with one of the three major bacterial pathogens, E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria. The totals for this group of recalls fell each year from 2017 to 2020 and rose again in 2021. Salmonella was the leader of these recalls in 2018 and 2020. Listeria took the top spot in the other three years.

E. coli Listeria Salmonella Recalls 2017-2021

About Listeria

Symptoms of a Listeria infection, called listeriosis, include high fever, severe headache, stiff neck, other muscle aches, nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. These symptoms usually develop within two weeks of exposure but sometimes it can take as long as 70 days for them to develop.

Listeria isn’t a common bacteria but it does have the highest death rate of the three major pathogens. Each year, about 1,600 cases of listeriosis are reported in the U.S. compared with 265,000 E. coli infections or 1.35 million Salmonella infections reported annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About 20 percent of confirmed Listeria infections prove fatal.

Pregnant women are 10 times more likely than others to contract listeriosis, 24 times more likely if the expectant mother is Hispanic. Listeria infections in pregnant women can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, and infection of newborns, even if the expectant mother shows no signs of illness.

Listeria thrives in cold temperatures that slow the growth of other bacteria. The cool, damp environments of food processing facilities provide excellent growing conditions for Listeria, and once it establishes itself, it can be difficult to eradicate. Because of these known risks, manufacturers of ready-to-eat foods are required to have controls in place that will mitigate the risk of Listeria and test for it.

As mentioned earlier, Listeria was associated with more deaths linked to recalled foods in 2021 than any other pathogen, including viruses or parasites. Some of these recalls were associated with outbreaks. One of them wasn’t. The first outbreak announced by the CDC in 2021 was an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak with an unknown source. That outbreak sickened 22 people in seven states. Eleven people were hospitalized. One person died.

Fatal Outbreaks with Recalls

2021 Dole Salad Listeria Recall and Outbreak

In December 2021, the CDC announced a Listeria outbreak linked to Dole salads.  The outbreak, one of two ongoing fatal Listeria outbreaks linked to prepackaged salad, includes 16 illnesses and two fatalities. Dole issued a massive recall for salads produced at all for of its vegetable processing locations, Bessemer City, NC,  Yuma, AZ, Soledad, CA, and Springfield, OH.

The recalled salads were sold under the Dole brand name as well as the brands Ahold, Dole, Kroger, Lidl, Little Salad Bar, Marketside, Naturally Better, Nature’s Promise, and Simply Nature.

This is not the first time packaged salads produced by Dole have been linked to a Listeria outbreak. From July 2015 to January 2016, Listeria outbreaks in the U.S. and Canada were linked to salads produced at Dole’s plant in Springfield, Ohio. Thirty-three people were sickened, four of them died.

By obtaining records through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Food Poisoning Bulletin was first to report in March 2016 that years before the outbreak, Dole had found Listeria at the plant. The documents we obtained showed the company found Listeria in the plant in early 2014 and “infrequently” before that. In April 2016, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the outbreak.

Dole Salad Listeria recall 3

Fresh Express Salad Listeria Recall and Outbreak

The other ongoing fatal Listeria outbreak linked to packaged salads is the Fresh Express. The Fresh Express salad Listeria outbreak includes 10 illnesses and one fatality. Fresh Express issued a recall for salads it produced and sold under its own brand name as well as the store brands include Wellsley Farms, Weis, Simply Nature, Signature Farms, O Organics, Marketside, Market District, Giant Eagle, and Bowl & Basket.

El Abuelito Cheese Recall and Outbreak

A Listeria outbreak linked to El Abuelito queso fresco included 13 illnesses, 12 hospitalizations and one death. El Abuelito Cheese Inc. issued a recall for cheese products on February 19, 2021, and an expansion of the recall on February 27, 2021. The recalled queso fresco products were sold under the brand names El Abuelito, Rio Grande, and Rio Lindo.  And the recalled Quesillo and Requeson  products were sold under the brand names El Abuelito, Viejito, El Paisano, El Sabrosito, La Cima, Quesos Finos, San Carlos, and Ideal.



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