Blue Bell Creameries’ April 20 decision to recall “all of its products currently on the market made at all of its facilities including ice cream, frozen yogurt, sherbet and frozen snacks” is significant, according to Fred Pritzker, a leading food safety lawyer.
“This recall reflects a potential systemic problem at multiple Blue Bell plants involving all of its products over a prolonged period of time,” says attorney Pritzker, whose law firm is helping people sickened by these products.
Listeria monocytogenes is widespread in the environment. It is found in soil, water, sewage and vegetation. It thrives in plant environments, including in floor drains, cracks and crevices in machinery, and on equipment and surfaces used to make food products. It also forms biofilms which are resistant to cleaning. This pathogen also survives and multiplies at refrigeration temperatures. In most instances, the only way to deactivate L. monocytogenes is by cooking the food in which it is found to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees.
Listeria does not require animal transfer for introduction into a processing plant. Dust, dirt or debris laden with it can entering a plant during construction, through the plant’s ventilation system, or on the clothing or shoes of workers, have all been linked to previous L. monocytogenes outbreaks. Once in a plant environment, colonies are capable of surviving indefinitely.
It’s because of these characteristics that most Listeria outbreaks are associated with ready-to-eat foods – those that do not require a kill step like cooking prior to distribution and consumption.
“Refrigerated, ready-to-eat food producers like Blue Bell Creameries have an absolute obligation under federal law to produce and sell food products that are free of this pathogen,” says Pritzker. “There is a ‘zero-tolerance’ for these pathogens in food products precisely because they are so dangerous.”
This is why producers are required to properly clean and sanitize all equipment, work surfaces, floors, walls, ceilings, drains, storage facilities and transportation equipment. This is also why companies must have vigorous and effective testing protocols to make sure both plant environments and finished products are free of L. monocytogenes.
“Most of the outbreaks that I’ve litigated on behalf of my clients involve fundamental breakdowns in sanitation and testing protocols,” says Fred. “The companies don’t do enough in preventing bacteria from entering the plant, don’t follow proper cleaning protocols and don’t do enough environmental swabbing and product testing to verify that Listeria is not present in their plants and products.”