Recent Listeria cases sound alarm of concern

Evidence shows cases involving Listeria have remained stable in recent years.

A rash of multi-state Listeria outbreaks resulting in massive product recalls, including the recent recall of more than 47 million pounds of meat and poultry sold at Kroger, Costco and Dorothy Lane Market, has raised concerns that a potential epidemic of the food-borne illness could be sweeping the nation.

The recall of not-fully-cooked meat and poultry contained in frozen dinners from California-based Ajinomoto Windsor Inc., followed the recall of about 358 food items sold under 42 separate brands packaged by CRF Frozen Foods of Pasco, Wash.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture first discovered Listeria in CRF products during a random product sampling last month. Since then, CRF products have been linked to illness in at least eight people in California, Maryland, and Washington and implicated in two deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Springfield’s Dole facility reopened last month after shutting down for nearly four months. A listeria outbreak connected to the plant has been linked to four deaths and several illness across the U.S. and Canada.

Despite the publicity surrounding the recalls, evidence suggests that while more Listeria is being detected, the incidence of listeriosis resulting from the consumption of food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes has remained stable in recent years.

There was no observed change in the incidence of listeriosis from the period of 2006-2008 to 2012-2013, according to the CDC, which reported the incidence of listeriosis had declined by about 42 percent in the preceding decade.

Terri Gerhardt, chief of food safety at the Ohio agriculture department, said the seeming disconnect between the growing number of Listeria recalls and relatively stable incidence of listeriiosis can be attributed to stepped up efforts to detect Listeria by retailers and manufacturers.

“One reason why people seem to think we’re finding more (Listeria) is that the FDA is trying to standardize food manufacturing inspection programs among all the states,” Gerhardt said. “When you have more set of eyes collecting and running samples, you’re going to find more things. But I don’t think there is any increase in the incidence of the organism out there, it’s just that we’re doing more testing. ”

Listeriosis is developed from the Listeria monocytogenes — an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems.

Symptoms include high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain, and diarrhea, according to the FDA. Listeria infection can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women.

On average, the CDC, estimates that approximately 1,600 illnesses and 260 deaths due to listeriosis occur annually in the United States.

That’s a fraction of the number of hospitalizations and deaths caused by the flue each year, by comparison.

But Listeria outbreaks have been known to be mass killers.

One of the most deadly outbreaks involved bacteria ridden cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado in 2011. The case count climbed to 147, and the food-borne illness killed 33 people and hospitalized 143 people across 28 states. One woman, who was pregnant when she fell ill, had a miscarriage.

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