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Home --> Food --> Food Warnings --> Listeria, not Hysteria

Listeria, not Hysteria

Claim:   A massive recall of contaminated Sara Lee meat products is underway.

Status:   Was true; now outdated.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, 1999]

The following products by SARA LEE have been recalled nationwide:

BALL PARK FRANKS
MR TURKEY COLD CUTS
HYGRADE FRANKS

The organism "Listeria" has been found in some of these products and 11 deaths have been reported, 2 miscarriages, and 1 still birth.

If you have any of these products in your home, return them for a refund or discard them immediately. Every reader is encouraged to pass this along to as many people as possible. You may be able to help prevent someone from eating these products! Thanks.

Origins:   Even when there is real cause for concern, the problem with communicating health alerts on the Internet is the warnings just don't go away once the crisis has passed. This call to avoid Sara Lee meat products is a perfect example of a good warning gone
bad.

In December 1998, Sara Lee pulled its meat products from stores and issued consumer warnings as loudly as it could upon discovering Listeria bacteria in its hot dogs and cold cuts. Though Sara Lee acted responsibly and quickly in the face of this contamination, it was not and could not have been enough to prevent the loss of life which ultimately resulted from that deadly bacterial outbreak. Listeriosis (the infection caused by listeria bacteria) can take up to 70 days to manifest itself. At the time of the recall, only 4 deaths out of a final body count of 21 had occurred.

The Sara Lee recall was the largest one of its kind, with 15 million pounds of Ball Park, Bil Mar, Hygrade and other brands of hot dogs and packaged lunch meat recalled and destroyed. The meats were made by the company's Bil Mar Foods plant in Zeeland, Michigan, which was temporarily shut after the recall.

It almost goes without saying (but we'll say it anyway), that the time of that particular crisis is long past. Sara Lee meat products these days are as safe as any others on the market. (Which isn't necessarily saying all that much, but we're coming to that point.) To continue to pass around this warning is to do Sara Lee a disservice. Worse, the vilification of one company risks letting those you care about fall into a dangerous state of complacency — by branding Sara Lee as the one to watch out for, you implicitly paint a halo over all other processed meat providers. And that could prove to be a deadly mistake.

Listeria regularly turns up in a number of foodstuffs, each time prompting a recall. Though the Sara Lee recall is over and done with, any number of others are underway at any given moment. It is cruelly ironic that by warning people off Sara Lee, you may be driving them right into the next major outbreak. And because you only warned them about Sara Lee, they might forego proper food handling techniques or feel them unnecessary under the fatally mistaken assumption that non-Sara Lee stuff is safe.

When it comes to listeria, the question is not which company has proved unsafe in the past; it's where the next contamination will take place.

(Note: The following is a representative, not complete, list of listeria foodstuff contamination recalls issued in the months preceding the writing of this article in 2000. Readers should not underestimate the prevalence of this type of problem based on the limited number of entries listed here.)
  • 14 October 1999 — Marathon Enterprises Inc. of New Jersey recalls 52,000 pounds of Sabrett brand hot dogs.
  • 13 August 1999 — Redwood Hill Farms of northern California recalls 8 days' output of goat milk.
  • 30 August 1998 — Butterfield Foods of Indiana recalls its beef & onion dip and its beef & onion cheeseball mix.
  • 28 August 1999 — Gaspar's Sausage Co. of Massachusetts recalls 3,720 pounds of sausage.
  • 31 July 1999 — Dearborn Sausage Co. of Michigan recalls 130 pounds of ham products.
What separates listeria from its better-known food poisoning cousins e.coli and salmonella is its deadliness. E.coli and salmonella, though both are serious and sometimes fatal, are pussycats compared to listeria.

The Centers for Disease Control says about 250 people die and 1,100 become ill each year from listeriosis, a 23% death rate. By way of contrast, e.coli and salmonella kill 3% of those they make ill.

The listeria microorganism can lurk in the intestines of any number of animals, including domestic pets, without the animal showing any sign of illness. It can be on vegetables that have been contaminated by manure. It's also found in soil, water, and dust.

Listeria is a hardy bacteria with lots of opportunities to spread. It can continue to grow in freezing temperatures, proliferating in sealed packages or on the walls of refrigerators. At the upper end, it survives limited exposure to temperatures of up to 170 degrees.

The good news is that enough heat does kill it. So how has it gotten into packages of hot dogs and deli meats, all which were heat-treated in processing? Nobody knows for sure. Food safety experts say it's possible the products were contaminated after cooking and before packaging.

Listeria usually does not pose a serious threat to most healthy people, causing only mild gastrointestinal rumblings. However, the bacteria can be devastating for "high-risk populations," including the elderly and people with compromised immune systems — anyone with AIDS, kidney disease, diabetes, cancer or other serious health conditions. Listeriosis can cause meningitis (inflammation of brain and spinal cord areas) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) among these vulnerable groups.

Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, body aches (particularly a stiff neck), chills and headaches.

Listeria is also especially dangerous for pregnant women who may not feel the full brunt of the illness, but only a few flulike symptoms — often not enough to seek a doctor's attention. However, the listeria bacteria is passed on to the fetus, often resulting in miscarriage or stillbirth.

What You Can Do:

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture recommends that persons in the listeriosis high risk category (the elderly, pregnant women, those with compromised immune systems) should:
  • Reheat until steaming hot the following types of ready-to-eat foods: hot dogs, luncheon meats, cold cuts, fermented and dry sausage, and other deli-style meat and poultry products. Thoroughly reheating food can help kill any bacteria that might be present. If you cannot reheat these foods, do not eat them.
  • Wash hands with hot, soapy water after handling these types of ready-to-eat foods. (Wash for at least 20 seconds.) Also wash cutting boards, dishes, and utensils. Thorough washing helps eliminate any bacteria that might get on your hands or other surfaces from food before it is reheated.
  • Don't eat soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined or Mexican-style cheese. You may more safely eat hard cheeses, processed cheeses, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt.
  • Do not drink raw, unpasteurized milk or eat foods made from it, such as unpasteurized cheese.
  • Observe all expiration dates for perishable items that are precooked or ready-to-eat.
Expanding further on FSIS's advice to reheat certain foodstuffs until steaming, we'd like to point out it's a good idea to forego microwaving for this purpose. Especially in the case of hot dogs (which need to be cooked, not reheated), boil, roast, steam, or fry them — do not rely on microwaving to cook them thoroughly enough to destroy whatever bacteria they may have picked up. Microwaves cook unevenly and can leave pockets of bacteria undisturbed in a way conventional cooking methods won't.

The FSIS has this to say about what everyone should be doing to minimize the risk of contracting food poisoning:
  • Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often with hot, soapy water. Because Listeria monocytogenes can slowly grow at refrigerator temperatures, always use hot, soapy water to clean up liquid that spills in the refrigerator — including spills from packages of luncheon meats and hot dogs. Always wash hands, cutting boards, dishes, and utensils with hot, soapy water after they come in contact with raw food.
  • Separate: Don't cross-contaminate. Ready-to-eat foods and raw meat, poultry, and seafood can contain dangerous bacteria. As a result, keep these foods separate from vegetables, fruits, breads, and other foods that are already prepared for eating.
  • Cook: Cook to safe temperatures. If you are at risk for listeriosis, reheat luncheon meats, cold cuts, and other deli-style meat and poultry until they are steaming hot.
  • Chill: Refrigerate or freeze perishables, including ready-to-eat foods, within 2 hours.
Barbara "sometimes the hot dog bites back" Mikkelson

Additional information:
  Food Safety Information   Food Safety Information
  (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition)
  Foodborne Illness   Foodborne Illness
  (Centers for Disease Control)
Last updated:   31 December 2005

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  Sources Sources:
    Ignelzi, R.J.   "Dangerous Digestion."
    The San Diego Union-Tribune.   15 June 1999   (p. E1).

    O'Donnell, Jayne.   "Listeria Testing Set for Hot Dogs, Cold Cuts."
    USA Today.   25 May 1999   (p. A1)

    Pauly, Heather.   "Meat Recall Still Hurting Sara Lee."
    Chicago Sun-Times.   23 April 1999   (Finance; p. 61).

    Pauly, Heather.   "Fatal Bacteria Traced to Sara Lee."
    Chicago Sun-Times.   8 January 1999   (Finance; p. 53).

    Sternberg, Steve.   "Sara Lee Recalls Hot Dogs, Other Meats."
    USA Today.   23 December 1998   (p. A1).

    Bloomberg News.   "Marathon Recalls 26 Tons of Hot Dogs."
    The Plain Dealer.   14 October 1999   (p. C3).

    Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.   "Meat Distributor Recalls Contaminated Hams."
    31 July 1999   (p. A4).

    Reuters.   "Sausage Recalled After Bacteria Found."
    The Boston Globe.   28 August 1999   (p. B7).

    The San Francisco Chronicle.   "Dairy's Raw Goat Milk Is Recalled By the State."
    13 August 1999   (p. D4).