This is an updated version of a story published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Oct. 10, 2011 edition.
Wary shoppers are checking fruit and vegetable stickers after Jensen Farms cantaloupes in Colorado and romaine lettuce from a California grower were linked to listeria last month. Two elderly Louisiana women--one from East Baton Rouge and another from Shreveport--died this month from a strain of listeria associated with Jensen Farms melons. The state's listeriosis outbreaks in recent years, however, have mainly involved specialty meat items--often of the Cajun variety--rather than produce.
Last week, Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain said "listeria is commonly found in soil and water, and affects livestock if it's ingested, gets in their eyes or sinuses." The rod-shaped bacterium can also infect humans--especially the elderly, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems. "But because of listeria's long incubation period, they may not become ill for weeks," he said.
Strain said sources of listeriosis include unpasteurized milk and cheese, cheese that's not aged long, deli meats that aren't kept at low enough temperatures and smoked meats and cheeses. Unpasteurized juices are another source. Listeria can grow at room and refrigerator temperatures and can linger well after its source has been eradicated. When a colony expands on food processing equipment, bio-films that form can be tough to remove.
Strain said "we do testing for listeria at food processing facilities in different stages, by taking samples of product, doing swab tests and environmental tests of processing equipment, air-conditioning vents and drains--all following U.S. Dept. of Agriculture guidelines. We send product samples to a food safety lab on the Louisiana State University campus."
Across the nation, thousands of USDA Food Safety Inspection Service or FSIS staffers examine slaughterhouses and food processing plants, and watch over billions of pounds of meat, poultry and eggs. In Louisiana "state inspected product is limited to distribution within the state, while federally inspected product can be shipped across state lines," according to Laura Lindsay, LDAF spokeswoman. But either way, plants are subject to the same regulations.
On Aug. 14 of last year, LDAF coordinated a voluntary recall of 500,000 pounds of hog's head cheese and sausage at Veron Foods, LLC of Prairieville, La. because of possible listeria contamination. For the uninitiated, hog's head cheese--a jelly made from swine heads and feet--is big in Cajun country and many European nations, where it's spread on bread or crackers. Production dates back to the Middle Ages.
In an outbreak in Louisiana in the first half of 2010, fourteen patients were confirmed ill with listeriosis
and seven were hospitalized. Two of the fourteen died. An investigation by the the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the LDAF, and the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service led to the recall. Four patients were interviewed about their food histories, and illnesses were traced back to Veron."But we were never able to confirm if all the local, listeriosis cases from early 2010 into that summer were from hog's head cheese," Strain said.
River Parish Foods, LLC in Prairieville produces Veron sausages now after the plant in Ascension Parish changed hands a number of times in recent decades. Hog's head cheese hasn't been manufactured there since last August, according to the company.
In January 2007, Pap's Louisiana Cuisine, a former owner of the same Prairieville plant, voluntarily recalled 290 pounds of head cheese that may have been contaminated with listeria, FSIS said. A batch made in late December 2006 was distributed to Southeast Louisiana retailers before problems with it were detected through routine FSIS testing.
In early 2005, sausage made by another Ascension Parish company was recalled after FSIS found listeria at its plant in February. LeBlanc's Cajun Boudin and Food Co., Inc., in St. Amant, voluntarily recalled 1,120 pounds of cooked boudin and cooked crawfish boudin then. Boudin is Cajun or French sausage and similar products, usually containing pork and rice.
When asked how Louisiana food processors and agribusinesses control listeria, Dr. Marlene Janes, associate professor of food microbiology at LSU AgCenter, said "the state collects samples from small processors, such as head cheese and boudin sausage makers, and the Louisiana Dept. of Agriculture has state labs that test for listeria monocytogenes. Sometimes it's like finding a needle in a haystack."
Janes continued, saying "most ready-to-eat processors have aggressive protocols for keeping their processing areas clean. Contamination of ready-to-eat products usually occurs after processing, and can occur if listeria gets into the processing environment." If a product becomes contaminated, listeria can grow during refrigeration to levels that cause illness.
Regarding the timing of last year's head cheese recall, Janes said little media attention was given to the local listeria outbreak, and as a result some consumers may have become ill.
Drew Falkenstein, attorney with law firm MarlerClark in Seattle, representing clients in U.S. food poisoning outbreaks, said "I'm a strong supporter of Centers for Disease Control, USDA and other government agencies releasing information as soon as possible to the public when listeria appears to be a threat. Listeria is particularly tricky and dangerous because of its long incubation period and the delays between ingestion and onset of illness--which can be as much as 70 days." Built-in delays affect prevention and are a public health challenge, and most likely contributed to the time that it took Veron to recall head cheese in last year's outbreak, he said.
Listeria can affect raw, cooked and smoked shellfish and seafood, but Louisiana's fisheries have had few problems with listeriosis. Harlon Pearce, chairman of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board and owner of Harlon's LA Fish & Seafood in Kenner, La., said "the Gulf industry follows the Food and Drug Administration's HACCP, or Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points program," aimed at preventing causes of illness."We're also self policing, and have to be to stay in business," he said. "From the boat to the dock to processors, we try to keep seafood under ice or refrigerated at low temperatures."
As for this month's listeriosis deaths in Louisiana, Meghan Speakes, Louisiana Dept. of Health and Hospitals spokeswoman, said "we're reminding all residents to look for stickers when purchasing whole cantaloupe. Recalled, whole cantaloupes have a green and white sticker that reads Product of USA-Frontera Produce-Colorado Fresh-Rocky Ford-Cantaloupe; or a gray, yellow and green sticker that says Jensen Farms-Sweet Rocky Fords." Consumers should ask stores about the origin of any cantaloupes without stickers, she said.
On Sept. 14, Jensen Farms voluntarily recalled millions of Rocky Ford cantaloupes, shipped from July 29 to Sept. 10 and distributed to seventeen states or more. As of Oct. 6, 109 people infected with listeria had been reported to the CDC from 24 states, and 21 deaths had occurred.
Jay Breaux at Breaux Mart, headquartered in Metairie, said "when there's a food recall, we hear about it from our distributors and the Louisiana Retailers Association, and information filters in from other sources. A distributor told us last month that some cases of Rocky Ford cantaloupe had been sent to our warehouse in August."
Breaux continued, saying "every food store, deli and restaurant in the city is certified for food safety training. For example, if we cut up fruit, we wash it first and follow safety guidelines." Breaux Mart owns five supermarkets in greater New Orleans.
The Louisiana Retailers Association distributes details about food recalls and safety to its members, according to Jessica Elliott, government affairs director.
At Walmart, spokeswoman Dianna Gee in Arkansas, said "our process for removing recalled products begins as soon as we receive notification from a regulatory agency, such as the USDA or FDA, or the supplier. Several suppliers who sourced cantaloupes from the Rocky Ford region asked us to remove them prior to the formal recall announcement." On Sept. 12, Walmart tossed Jensen cantaloupes from its stores.
Gee said "our Louisiana stores were never impacted by this recall." Walmart continues to sell cantaloupes from farms that are considered safe at its stores nationwide, she said.
Meanwhile in California, True Leaf Farms of Salinas in late September voluntarily recalled 2,500 cartons of romaine lettuce in nineteen states and Canada because of possible listeria contamination.
Commissioner Strain said the days of soaking fruit and vegetables in bleach and water in Louisiana's kitchen sinks are long gone because bleach presents its own health threats. He mentioned ways to keep kitchens free of listeria, many of which consumers know but don't always practice: wash your hands frequently; keep raw meat separate from cooked food; thoroughly cook meat; keep fluid from hot dog packages away from other foods and surfaces; rinse fruits and vegetables well and scrub them with a brush; refrigerate food as soon as possible; clean countertops and refrigerators with warm, soapy water; and pay attention to expiration dates. -end-