Large food recalls have recently forced consumers to throw away foods such as ice cream and hummus because of contamination with the potentially deadly bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. Tainted Blue Bell ice cream products have been linked to eight listeria illnesses in Kansas and Texas; three patients in a Kansas hospital who contracted the illness died as a result. In May, Blue Bell laid off 37% of its workforce at plants in four states as the company tried to cope with a nationwide recall of all of its products.
And on April 8, Sabra Dipping Co. announced a recall of 30,000 cases of its Classic Hummus due to possible listeria contamination, though no illnesses have been linked to that recall. These recalls follow other nationwide recalls of cantaloupe, sprouts, and other products due to possible contamination with Listeria.
What is Listeria and why is it considered an important foodborne pathogen? Listeria is a hardy bacteria found in soil and water, and it can be carried by animals. It can contaminate a processing facility and stay there for a long period of time, and it can grow in the cold temperature of a refrigerator. It is commonly found in unpasteurized milk, and it is sometimes found in other foods as well — 30 people died from listeriosis in 2011 linked to Listeria-contaminated cantaloupe. About 1,600 people in the United States get sick from Listeria each year.
What are the symptoms of illness caused by Listeria? When a person contacts the disease (listeriosis), it can cause fever, muscle aches, vomiting and diarrhea, and even death. Listeria is particularly deadly to pregnant women and their newborns, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems. Listeria is the third leading cause of death from foodborne illness in the United States.
What is a person to do if they have contaminated food in their home? The government’s motto is “when in doubt, throw it out.” If you throw something away that you think might be tainted, place it in a closed plastic bag in a sealed trash can to prevent animals or other people from eating it. Some grocery stores may offer a refund if you purchased potentially contaminated product.
How does a person protect themselves from the illness listeriosis? In the case of the ice cream and hummus recalls, there is nothing you can do to prevent it — just throw away the food if you learn they have been recalled. If a fruit or vegetable is contaminated, scrubbing with a brush under clear running water is never a bad idea, but it may not rid produce of all contaminants. In the case of the cantaloupe, the Listeria likely hid on the fruit’s thick, rough skin. Some foods such as meat or milk can be rendered safe if fully cooked; heating to an internal temperature of 165°F or higher.
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Stay safe and healthy by contacting your local University of Wisconsin-Extension office with any questions. Barb