For a list of the 25 states, check the company’s release.
The bacterium Listeria monocytogenes can cause infection, particularly in “older adults, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which calls it “an important public health problem in the United States.”
Typical symptoms include fever, muscle aches, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms, as the infection generally takes hold in the intestines. And it can be deadly. The CDC estimates that listeria hospitalizes about 1,600 people each year, killing about 260.
Some outbreaks, of course, are worse than others. In 2011, an outbreak of listeriosis — the name for the infection the bacterium causes — at a Colorado cantaloupe farm killed 33 people.
While, as the CDC noted, “Listeria monocytogenes is commonly found in soil and water,” most people contract the bacterium (and the infection) through tainted foods.
The issue is that listeria not only lives but thrives in the cold.
“It likes places that are cold and wet and where there is something it can grow on,” Robert Tauxe, who helps lead the foodborne-diseases division at CDC, told Today.com “Unfortunately, food factories with good refrigeration systems are a place listeria is known to hang out. It takes some care and it takes specifically looking for it and disinfecting when it is found. It is a challenge to many food factories.”
The best way to eradicate listeria from foodstuff is through pasteurization.
But there’s a good chance that anyone who regularly consumes news already knows this.
The past few years have seen a number of either listeria outbreaks or fears of them. In fact, as recently as 2009, Kellogg issued a recall of several varieties of its Eggo waffles after the Georgia Department of Agriculture found listeria in Kellogg’s Atlanta-based plant.
A quick Google search for listeria, salmonella or E. coli (even hepatitis A) will bring up a list of brand names beloved by American appetites, from Blue Bell to Chipotle.
It leads to the obvious question: Do we find more foodborne-illness outbreaks than we used to?
The answer is simple and might sound terrifying: yes, by a wide margin.
As Lena H. Sun wrote in The Washington Post, “Major foodborne outbreaks in the United States have more than tripled in the last 20 years, and the germs most frequently implicated are familiar to most Americans: Salmonella, E. coli and listeria.”
Of course, any illness or death is bad news, but the fact that we know about these contaminations now, often before anyone gets sick, is a sign of progress.
Purdy points to the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2011 which, among other things, forces companies to act if a pathogen is detected in their facilities. That was not always the case, Purdy wrote.
“If an ice cream company found listeria in its facility pre-FSMA, it wasn’t required to do anything,” Sandy Eskin, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ food-safety campaign, told Quartz. “Now, starting in mid-September, they’re going to be responsible … for taking steps to prevent problems and the government is going to hold them accountable.”
And it’s true that great oversight and great technology has proven useful. As The Post reported, CDC officials have used gene-sequencing tools to discover the origin of outbreaks more quickly than in the past, and, “officials say, they’ve been able to solve some ‘cold cases’ by finding contaminated food responsible for unsolved illnesses.” (In the Blue Bell case, for example, the CDC was able to connect five-year-old cases of listeriosis to the outbreak.)
By using that technology and detailed questionnaires on what people ate before they got sick, CDC, FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture solved 9 listeria outbreaks in the last year, compared with two the previous year.
But CDC Director Thomas Frieden also said the outbreaks tend to involve deadlier pathogens. “On average, there are about two per month, and they can be big and they can be lethal,” he said.
That, finally, is why it is important for consumers to be aware of recalls — such as the current one involving some Eggo waffles.