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Preventing Listeria Outbreaks

Post written by: Joshua Lauth | Agribusiness Region Leader

shutterstock_142053856If you made a list of what keeps agribusiness plant operators awake at night, the threat of a Listeria outbreak would be near the top.

Listeria is the bacteria that causes listeriosis, a potentially life-threatening infection that can cause sepsis and meningitis, among other serious inflammatory conditions. Complicating matters, Listeria is hardier than many other forms of bacteria, able to grow in temperatures between 39 and 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Its ability to grow in cooler temperatures makes it a threat in plants that handle fresh produce, refrigerated dairy and frozen foods.

In recent years, several high-profile Listeria outbreaks have damaged agribusiness companies.

  • In 2011, a Listeria outbreak killed 33 people. The outbreak was traced to cantaloupes grown and processed by Jensen Farms in Colorado. The farm’s co-owners, two brothers, were each sentenced to five months’ probation, six months of home detention and ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution and 100 hours of community service.
  • In April of this year, ice cream manufacturer Blue Bell Creameries recalled all of its products after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) traced a Listeria outbreak to one of its processing facilities in Oklahoma. That outbreak sickened 10 people in four states, three of whom died.
  • Also in April, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams discovered Listeria in its Columbus, Ohio, production plant. The plant was closed, cleaned at a cost of more than $200,000 and reopened in May, but a subsequent test three weeks after the plant reopened revealed it was still contaminated. After the second positive test, in June, Jeni’s indefinitely closed its plant, along with all 20 of its retail locations and issued a recall of all products.

Listeria is dangerous, hardy, and once it’s in a facility, it can be very difficult to eliminate. The source of contamination can be difficult to pinpoint, meaning the best and sometimes only defense is routine testing of both products and machinery, and routine audits of food production and food-handling practices. These should be conducted by both in-house quality control specialists and third-party auditing firms.

Plant operators should consider undertaking a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) audit. HACCP is a food safety management system that helps plant operators analyze and address biological hazards throughout the food production process. More information can be found at the FDA’s website, www.fda.gov.

The Safe Quality Foods Institute can also perform an audit of your food handling management systems and protocols. For more information, visit www.sqfi.com. In addition to third-party audits, internal testing should be performed at regular intervals. These can cost a plant time and money due to the need to shut down production while the testing of products and machinery is under way, but the down time is trivial when compared to the damage that a Listeria outbreak can cause to a company’s reputation and bottom line.

For more information for the insurance ramifications around a listeria outbreak, contact an independent insurance agent. For a list of agents in your area, click here.

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