Ten months before federal officials announced a Listeria outbreak linked to hard-boiled eggs produced by Almark Foods in Gainesville, GA, inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found Listeria in two of the samples they gathered from the plant.
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The findings of the FDA’s inspection, conducted February 5 -13, 2019, were enough to prompt the company to issue a March 8, 2019 recall which was never made public, for a small number of 20-lb pails of “Nic’s Peeled Pearls,” salad-grade, hard-boiled eggs. (Nic’s Peeled Pearls would be among the egg products Almark recalled 10 months later when the outbreak was announced.)
But on a broader level, Almark pushed back on the FDA’s findings, which included Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) tests linking Listeria found at the plant to reported cases of illness. The two positive swabs collected from different zones at the plant – one in a floor drain, the other on a food-contact surface, “are genetically identical to each other, which suggests possible cross-contamination between the locations. Further, the WGS analysis of the strain also showed that the isolates are genetically identical to 2 cases of human illness dating back to 2017,” the FDA wrote in a warning letter to the company dated July, 22, 2019.
In its August 6, 2019, response to the FDA warning letter, Almark wrote that its own “duplicate and contemporaneous” swab test for the food-contact site was negative for Listeria when tested by a third-party lab as were product samples taken from that area. The letter then outlines various steps it has taken to improve its food safety process including a March 31, 2019 deep-cleaning and sanitization of the peeling and cooking room which was followed up by two rounds of swab tests, all of which were negative for Listeria.
In the days that fell between the exchange of these letters, the first (2019) Listeria illness linked to eggs produced at Almark’s Gainesville facility was reported. One month later, two more illnesses. In November, another illness.
When the outbreak and related recall were announced on December 19, 2019, a total of seven illnesses and one death had been reported in connection with the contaminated eggs. The illnesses, which occurred between April 10, 2017 and November 12, 2019, were reported from five states: FL (1), ME (1), PA (1), SC (2), TX (2). The fatality was reported from Texas.
The people sickened in the outbreak range in age from less than 1 year to 82 years old and include a newborn who was infected with Listeria while the mother was pregnant, but the newborn survived. Pregnant women, people over 65 and people with compromised immune systems are at heightened risk for Listeria infections. Among pregnant women, Listeria can cause miscarriage, stillbirth and premature delivery of a newborn.
The FDA conducted another inspection of the facility in December 2019 and inspectors again found the outbreak strain on swabs collected. On December 23, 2019, Almark expanded its recall to include all eggs produced at the Gainesville facility and ceased production.
The recall includes eggs produced by Almark and sold retail under a variety of brand names and eggs distributed to foodservice locations. The retail products were sold under the following brand names:
- 7 Select
- Best Choice
- Dairy Fresh
- Egglands Best
- Everyday Essentials
- Farmers Henhouse
- Food Club
- Fresh Thyme
- Giant Egle
- Great Day
- Great Value
- Inspired Organics
- Kirkland Signature
- Member’s Mark
- Naturally Better
- O Organics
- Pete and Gerry’s
- Rainbow Farms
- Rembrandt Food
- Simple Truth Organics
- Vital Farms
- Wild Harvest
The eggs sold in bulk to foodservice and other commercial clients were sold under the names:
- Egggs Select
- Nic’s Peeled Pearls
- Rainbow Farms
- Sutherland’s Food Service