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Dole’s listeria outbreak leaves stores scrambling

Springfield plant workers return, but production suspended 2 to 4 weeks.

Thousands of bags of pre-packaged salads have been pulled from grocery shelves across the region, and many workers returned to Dole’s Springfield facility Monday, days after production there stopped when health officials linked the plant to a listeria outbreak.

Dole voluntarily closed the production facility Thursday afternoon after one death and 12 illnesses were linked to the outbreak. Locally, health officials said the news has not led to a spike in calls from concerned shoppers.

“The part that’s helping us is that most of the cases are out of state,” said Anita Biles, a spokeswoman for the Clark County Combined Health District. “There’s not been any local illness, and there’s nothing unusual with our numbers.”

The investigation is ongoing, said Kate Fowlie, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Food-borne illness cases vary, so it’s not clear how long it will take to determine exactly what caused the outbreak.

Several packaged salad products were included in the recall, including Dole and store brands for Kroger, Aldi, Meijer and Walmart. The salads can be identified by a product code that begins with an “A” on the packaging. The salads were sold in 23 states, including Ohio as well Canada, according to the CDC.

Listeria is a food-borne bacterial illness typically found in raw vegetables and meats, as well as some soft cheeses. Vegetables can become contaminated from the soil or from manure used as fertilizer.

Residents who are concerned they may have eaten the contaminated products should call their physician if they have symptoms. If residents have questions, health department staff will direct them to the right source for assistance, Biles said.

Grocers throughout the region scrambled over the weekend to pull the products from their shelves, leaving wide sections empty in the aftermath.

Pam Evancho, produce manager at Shoemaker’s IGA in South Charleston, learned hours after the announcement that she was carrying possibly contaminated lettuce. Over the weekend, Evancho contacted her distributor, who told her she could try to put in orders with Dole’s other processing plants in the United States.

“We’ve gotten in a few bags from North Carolina,” Evancho said.

She was unsure if the demand or production could keep up with her needs, as well as the needs of all the other stores looking for products. The store has put up signs warning customers of the recall.

“Our main concern is that the food we put out for our customers is safe,” Evancho said.

Terri Gansheimer, who shopped at the Aldi store in Springfield on Monday, said she immediately checked her refrigerator to make sure she didn’t have any of the contaminated bags. Even with bagged lettuce, Gansheimer takes extra steps to clean vegetables.

“I take all the precautions I can,” Gansheimer said. “I wash the fruit and wash the vegetables. And if it doesn’t feel right, I’ll wash it again.”

The investigation began in July last year, and the most recent cases were reported in late December, according to information from the CDC. It is possible illnesses that began later have not yet been reported.

Listeria doesn’t cause a lot of illnesses, but when it does, the symptoms can be severe, said Sanja Ilic, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Sciences at Ohio State University and a food safety specialist.

The bacteria is dangerous because it can continue to grow, even in refrigerated temperatures. Ilic was not sure of the steps Dole is now taking to fix the problem, but said she has trained Dole employees in the recent past on listeria food-safety measures.

“I know they have people that are trained to deal with listeria and qualified to respond to this,” Ilic said.

Company officials have said all full-time employees would still work during the interruption, and the facility’s parking lot was full Monday. The site could be closed 2 to 4 weeks, and in the meantime the products will instead be shipped to local stores from sites in California or North Carolina, said Bill Goldfield, a spokesman for Dole.

Company officials did not respond to additional questions concerning what Springfield employees will do while the site is closed. It is also not yet clear how the salads may have become contaminated in the first place.

In the meantime, Dole’s full-time employees in Springfield will receive normal pay and benefits, Goldfield said. Most temporary workers will also receive normal compensation, and Dole will assist other temporary workers with applying for unemployment insurance and other benefits while the plant is closed.

Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services declined to provide further details Monday about the death in their state, citing patient confidentiality. Four illnesses were also reported in Michigan, and the agency said it is working with the CDC, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and local health departments to monitor the outbreak.

The number of multistate food-borne outbreaks has spiked since the mid-1990s, in part due to wider food distribution nationally, as well as improved reporting methods, according to the CDC. There were 34 multistate outbreaks reported between 1995 and 1999, but that number spiked to 79 between 2005 and 2009. There were 120 outbreaks reported between 2010 and 2014, according to the CDC.

Salmonella, E. Coli and listeria cause 91 percent of state outbreaks, according to information from the CDC.

Symptoms of listeriosis can vary. They can include muscle aches, a fever or gastrointestinal symptoms. But the bacteria can also affect the central nervous system, causing issues like confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions. Infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, premature delivery or a life-threatening infection to a newborn.

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