Internal tests at Dole showed positive signs of listeria as early as 2014, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspection reports obtained by the Springfield News-Sun.
Dole performed swab tests at its Springfield facility that tested positive for listeria as many as nine times, beginning in July 2014, the inspection reports show. However the company continued to produce and ship products across the U.S. and Canada.
Dole confirmed Monday that it has been contacted by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of an investigation into its Springfield facility. A listeria outbreak there has been linked to four deaths and several illness across the U.S. and Canada.
The FDA released the inspection reports Monday in response to Freedom of Information Act requests the News-Sun filed in January and March.
Dole will cooperate with the investigation, company leaders said, and the issues raised in the FDA reports have been corrected. The Springfield facility reopened last week after a four-month shut down.
“Those FDA reports deal with issues at our plant that we have corrected,” said Bil Goldfield, a Dole spokesman. “We have been working in collaboration with the FDA and other authorities to implement ongoing improved testing, sanitation and procedure enhancements, which have resulted in the recent reopening of our Springfield plant.”
Officials at the DOJ declined to confirm or deny whether they have started an investigation into the case Monday.
The FDA doesn’t comment on possible criminal cases prior to the resolution of a case in court, said Lauren Sucher, a spokeswoman for the federal agency.
“FDA decisions about whether to refer a case for possible criminal prosecution are made on a case-by-case basis, and are based on several factors,” Sucher said. “These include, but are not limited to, risk to public health, economic fraud and whether a company is a repeat violator.”
It’s concerning the company continued to ship products after finding several positive samples of listeria over a span of more than a year, said Bill Marler, a food safety attorney based in Seattle. Marler represents the family of Kiki Christofield in their lawsuit against Dole.
The Ohio woman became severely ill after eating a Dole Salad Mix earlier this year. Christofield went into a coma as a result of the food-borne illness and is still recovering at a rehab facility, Marler said. Dole hasn’t filed an answer to the lawsuit.
“The thing that is concerning to me is you’re finding listeria repeatedly over a long period of time,” Marler said. “It’s less of an issue of should they have told the FDA. It’s more of an issue of should they have shut down their facility and gotten a handle on why they continue to have an ongoing listeria problem?”
FDA inspectors visited the Springfield facility this January, collecting a Dole Salad Kit-Ultimate Caesar product that was manufactured at the facility, along with several samples of romaine lettuce used in that product from various stages of production.
“The finished product sample, as well as the in-process sub-samples collected from the water knife, the trans-slicer, and the metal tray beneath the cross-conveyor, all on Trim Line 1, were found by FDA laboratory analysis to be positive for Listeria monocytogenes,” the FDA report says.
Employees at Dole didn’t swab food contact areas for listeria, according to the inspection reports, instead swabbing various locations throughout the facility as close to food contact areas as possible.
Company officials told inspectors if listeria was detected in a food contact area, it would result in a Reportable Food Registry Report to the FDA, as well as a possible recall. So they instead test as close to those sites as possible, the inspection report says.
A Reportable Food Registry Report is an electronic report filed when there is reasonable probability that a food product will cause serious adverse health consequences, according to the FDA.
Company officials also told the FDA it tests other areas like drains, forklifts and other locations that would typically indicate whether listeria is present.
The report shows the company’s management believed Dole had an effective program for identifying listeria through a combination of sampling procedures, Dole’s sanitation program, preventative monitoring and a history of negative listeria results in environmental samples over the past several years.
The food handled at the Springfield plant is safe, Goldfield said.
“We understand that these recent news reports may raise questions among our consumers and customers,” he said in a statement. “They should be assured, however, that we have worked in conjunction with the FDA to address those observations and ensure that Dole products are safe.”
More information is needed to determine whether Dole failed its duty to consumers or what steps it took after finding positive samples of listeria in its facility, said Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University.
Listeria is a food-borne bacteria typically found in raw vegetables and meats, as well as some soft cheeses. About 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths due to listeriosis occur annually in the U.S., according to the CDC.
The outbreak affected the health of 19 people in the U.S. and 14 people in Canada, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among the 19 in the U.S., one man in Michigan died.
Three people died in Canada, although it hasn’t been determined if listeria contributed to the cause of those deaths, the Canadian Public Health Agency has said.
One key question the FDA reports don’t fully answer is whether the listeria samples were brought into the factory on a product like lettuce or whether it established a foothold within the facility, which Chapman said would be a more serious problem.
It’s also important to know what — if anything — Dole did to resolve the issue, he said.
“It’s not surprising there would be listeria there,” Chapman said. “What we don’t know is if those nine times they found it, whether it was transient or if it was resident. They might know that and they might not. It really depends on what they did further once they found those samples.”
Any time a serious illness is linked to a product it can create concern for a company’s customers moving forward, Chapman said.
“That’s a scary situation,” Chapman said. “That’s a problem in general that can affect trust in a company.”