A multistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes has been linked to Hispanic-style fresh and soft cheeses produced by El Abuelito Cheese, Inc. As a result, the company has recalled all Questo Fresco products with sell by dates through March 28 (032821).
Join Food Safety Tech on April 15 for the complimentary Food Safety Hazards Series: Listeria Detection, Mitigation, Control & Regulation“As the FDA stated, about this outbreak investigation, the Connecticut Department of Public Health collected product samples of El Abuelito-brand Hispanic-style fresh and soft cheeses from a store where a sick person bought cheeses. Sample analysis showed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in samples of El Abuelito Queso Fresco sold in 10 oz packages, marked as Lot A027 with an expiration date of 02/26/2021,” the company stated in an announcement posted on FDA’s website. “Samples are currently undergoing Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) analysis to determine if the Listeria monocytogenes found in these samples is a match to the outbreak strain. At this time, there is not enough evidence to determine if this outbreak is linked to El Abuelito Queso Fresco.”.
The recalled products were distributed to Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Thus far seven people, all of whom have been hospitalized, have fallen ill.
FDA recommends that consumers, restaurants and retailers do not consume, sell or serve any of the recalled cheeses. The agency also states that anyone who purchased of received the recalled products use “extra vigilance in cleaning and sanitizing any surfaces and containers that may have come in contact with these products to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.”
Last week U.S. Congressman and chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis James E. Clyburn (D-SC) launched an investigation into OSHA, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA over the nationwide coronavirus outbreaks at meatpacking plants that have led to the deaths of at least 270 employees. Nearly 54,000 workers at 569 U.S. meatpacking plants have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Subcommittee and media reports.
“Public reports indicate that under the Trump Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) failed to adequately carry out its responsibility for enforcing worker safety laws at meatpacking plants across the country, resulting in preventable infections and deaths. It is imperative that the previous Administration’s shortcomings are swiftly identified and rectified to save lives in the months before coronavirus vaccinations are available for all Americans,” the letter to James Frederick, deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA stated. “The Select Subcommittee strongly encourages you to take all necessary steps, including under President Biden’s Executive Order on Protecting Worker Health and Safety1and your other existing statutory authorities, to protect workers from the risks of the coronavirus by issuing clear guidance to employers, enacting an emergency temporary standard, and enhancing enforcement efforts.”
“Public reports indicate that meatpacking companies … have refused to take basic precautions to protect their workers, many of whom earn extremely low wages and lack adequate paid leave, and have shown a callous disregard for workers’ health,” Clyburn stated in the letter. “These actions appear to have resulted in thousands of meatpacking workers getting infected with the virus and hundreds dying. Outbreaks at meatpacking plants have also spread to surrounding communities, killing many more Americans.”
The Subcommittee has asked OSHA and each company for documentation related to the COVID infections and deaths, as well as their enforcement of worker protections under the Trump administration.
Today the FDA announced a new plan to collect samples of romaine lettuce as part of its ongoing surveillance after the spring 2018 multistate outbreak of E. coli O157:H7. The samples, which will be tested for Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) and Salmonella, will be collected from commercial coolers in Yuma County, Arizona during the current harvest season.
FDA plans to collect and test about 500 samples (each of which will consist of 10 subsamples), beginning in February and continuing through the end of the harvest season. In order to reduce the time between sample collection and reporting results, an independent lab close to the collection sites in Arizona will be testing the samples. FDA expects to receive test results within 24 hours.
“Helping to ensure the safety of leafy greens continues to be a priority of the FDA. This assignment adds to other work underway in collaboration with stakeholders in the Yuma agricultural region to implement actions identified in the Leafy Greens Action Plan, including a multi-year study to assess the environmental factors that impact the presence of foodborne pathogens in this region. Consistent with the action plan, the agency will engage with industry on conducting root cause analyses for any positive samples found during this assignment. Root cause analyses are important in that they seek to identify potential sources and routes of contamination, inform what preventive measures are needed, and help prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness,” FDA stated in a release.
COVID-19 precautions will be taken during the sampling plan. Agency investigators will preannounce visits and wear PPE while conducting the work.
FDA has completed its investigation of the multistate outbreak of E. coli 0151:H7 that occurred last fall and was linked to leafy greens. The FDA and CDC found the outbreak was caused by an E. coli strain that was genetically related to the strain found in the fall 2019 outbreak involving romaine lettuce (Salinas, California). Despite conducting environmental sampling at dozens of ranches in the area, the FDA was unable to identify a single site as the source of the outbreak. However, the analysis did confirm “a positive match to the outbreak strain in a sample of cattle feces,” which was located uphill from where the leafy greens identified in the agency’s traceback investigation were grown, according to an FDA release.
Although the FDA’s investigation has ended, the agency will be reviewing the findings and release a report in the “near future” with recommendations. “In the meantime, as recommended in our Leafy Greens Action Plan, the FDA continues to recommend growers assess and mitigate risk associated with adjacent and nearby land use practices, particularly as it relates to the presence of livestock, which are a persistent reservoir of E. coli O157:H7 and other STEC,” FDA stated in the update.
On October 29, 2020 attend the Food Safety Consortium Virtual episode on Listeria Detection, Mitigation and ControlThe CDC and USDA are investigating a multistate outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes that has sent 10 people to the hospital and resulted in one death. The outbreak, which as of October 22 has reported illnesses in Florida (1), Massachusetts (7) and New York (2), has been linked to Italian-style deli meats such as salami, mortadella and prosciutto. Currently no specific deli meat or common supplier has been identified.
CDC, FSIS and other public health officials are using PulseNet to identify any illnesses that could be linked to the outbreak. The following is a link to the CDC’s map of reported cases by state.
Global food supply chains are complex and therefore quite vulnerable to errors or fraudulent activity. A company in Chile repackaged and falsely labeled cheap raspberries from China, reselling them as top-level organic Chilean raspberries in Canada. These raspberries were linked to a norovirus outbreak in Canada, sickening hundreds of people. A whistleblower complaint helped to uncover this fraudulent scheme that posed a significant risk to human health.
Navigating the murky waters that COVID-19 presents has been no easy task for food companies. Being part of America’s critical infrastructure has meant that adapting to the pandemic has been unavoidable, and the industry has directly taken on the challenges to ensure the nation has a reliable food supply. But what about the frontline workers, their safety and how this ties into operational continuity as a whole? During last week’s episode of the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series, an expert panel discussed the practices that food companies have put in place during the pandemic and offered advice on managing the entire scope of COVID-19 challenges including screening employees and preventing infection transmission, safeguarding workers and the facility, administrative and engineering controls, education and training, and risk management.
“No doubt that it is a concert of controls and interventions that have allowed our industry to effectively combat this over the past several months,” said Sanjay Gummalla, senior vice president of scientific affairs at the American Frozen Foods Institute. “By and large, the industry has taken charge of this situation in a way that could not have been predicted.” Gummalla was joined by Trish Wester, founder of the Association for Food Safety Auditing Professionals and Melanie Neumann, executive vice president and general counsel for Matrix Sciences International.
First up, the COVID Czar—what is it and does your company have one? According to Neumann, this is a designated person, located both within a production facility as well as at the corporate location, who manages the bulk of the requirements and precautions that companies should be undertaking to address the pandemic. “We’re not trained in people safety—we’re trained in food safety,” said Neumann. “And it’s a lot to ask, especially on top of having to manage food safety.”
Some of the takeaways during the discussion include:
Administrative controls that must be managed: Appropriate cleaning, disinfection and sanitation; PPE; employee hygiene; shift management; and surveillance mechanisms
PPE: “It’s really clear now that face masks and coverings are critical in managing source control—it prevents the spread and protects other employees,” said Gummalla. “All employees wearing masks present the highest level of protection.” When the attendees were polled about whether face coverings are mandatory where they work, 91% answered ‘yes’.
Engineering controls within facility: Physical distancing measures such as plexiglass barriers, six-foot distance markings, traffic movement, limited employees, and hand sanitizer stations. “Engineering controls in a facility involve isolation from the virus,” said Gummalla. “In this case, controlling [and] reducing the exposure to the virus without relying on specific worker behavior. This is where facilities have implemented a great amount of thoughtful intervention, probably at a high capital cost as well.” Companies should also consider airflow management, which can involving bringing in an outside professional with expertise in negative and positive air pressure, advised Wester.
Verification activities and enterprise risk management: Neumann emphasized the importance of documentation as well as advising companies to apply a maturity model (similar to a food safety culture maturity model) to a COVID control program. The goal is to ensure that employees are following certain behaviors when no one is watching. “We want to be able to go from ‘told’ to ‘habit’,” she said.
Education and training: Using posters, infographics, brochures and videos, all of which are multilingual, to help emphasize that responsibility lies with every employee. “It is important to recognize the transmission is predominately is person to person,” said Gummalla. Do you have a daily huddle? Neumann suggests having a regular dialogue with employees about COVID.
The future, 2021 and beyond: Does your company have a contingency, preparedness or recovery plan? “The next six months are going to be critical; in many parts of the world, the worse is not over yet,” said Gummalla. “There will be a lot more innovation in our industry, and communication will be at the heart of all of this.”
Remember the 2015 Listeria outbreak linked to Blue Bell Creameries? The outbreak led to three deaths and 10 illnesses between January 2010 and January 2015. On Thursday the Department of Justice ordered the company to pay $17.25 million in criminal penalties for shipping contaminated products linked to that outbreak. The sentence, enforced by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman (Austin, Texas), is the largest fine and forfeiture ever imposed in a conviction involving a food safety case.
“American consumers must be able to trust that the foods they purchase are safe to eat,” stated – Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark, Justice Department’s Civil Division in an agency news release. “The sentence imposed today sends a clear message to food manufacturers that the Department of Justice will take appropriate actions when contaminated food products endanger consumers.”
In May 2020 Blue Bell pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of distributing adulterated ice cream. The following is an excerpt from the Department of Justice news release:
“The plea agreement and criminal information filed against Blue Bell allege that the company distributed ice cream products that were manufactured under insanitary conditions and contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, in violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. According to the plea agreement, Texas state officials notified Blue Bell in February 2015 that samples of two ice cream products from the company’s Brenham, Texas factory tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, a dangerous pathogen that can lead to serious illness or death in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women, newborns, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Blue Bell directed its delivery route drivers to remove remaining stock of the two products from store shelves, but the company did not recall the products or issue any formal communication to inform customers about the potential Listeria contamination. Two weeks after receiving notification of the first positive Listeria tests, Texas state officials informed Blue Bell that additional state-led testing confirmed Listeria in a third product. Blue Bell again chose not to issue any formal notification to customers regarding the positive tests. Blue Bell’s customers included military installations.”
The 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series will discuss COVID-19 Lessons Learned and Worker Safety | The Event runs September 3 through December 17 | Register NowA poultry processing plant operated by Foster Farms must shut down per the Merced County Department of Public Health (California) as a result of a large COVID-19 outbreak that has resulted in the death of eight employees. At least 358 workers at the facility located in Livingston, California have tested positive for COVID-19 (an outbreak was officially declared on June 29). Several buildings make up the Livingston facility, which employs about 2600 workers.
“In view of increasing deaths and uncontrolled COVID-19 cases, the decision was made to order the Livingston Plant within the Foster Farms Livingston Complex closed until acceptable safety measures are in place,” said Dr. Salvador Sandoval, Merced County’s Public Health Officer. In addition, the Los Angeles Times reports that officials are concerned the outbreak could be worse than reported because universal worker testing has not been completed.
The plant will reportedly close until September 7. During the closure, the facility will be deep cleaned and employees will engage in a new round of testing. Merced County states that an employee cannot return to work until he or she receives two negative COVID-19 test results within seven days.
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