Dangers of Listeria
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ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Last winter, Jack Kinard of Memphis watched his wife die from the Listeria bacteria.
JACK KINARD: I’ve never heard of Listeria. We had no idea what it was until the doctor came in and told us that it was caused by eating meat products or cheese or dairy.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Kinard was one of 21 people who died last winter from the country’s deadliest Listeria outbreak. 100 others became ill. A rare bacteria, Listeria kills about 25 percent of the 1100 who get it. By contrast, Salmonella kills 3 percent of its victims. The 1992 E.coli outbreak only killed four of the 732 who were infected. Pregnant women and young children are at high risk for succumbing to Listeria. So too are the elderly, says Dr. Michael Threlkeld, who diagnosed another Memphis victim, Helen Bodnar.
DR. MICHAEL THRELKELD, Infectious Disease Specialist: Individuals that are at high risk, and again that’s the elderly individuals with immune system defects, even treated as best you possibly can, still have a significant mortality. In a given individual, why one person dies and another person doesn’t is not always well understood.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Listeria Kinard and Bodnar got was traced to the Ballpark hot dog brand made in this plant in Southwestern Michigan owned by the Sara Lee Company. Listeria has been found in other plants this year. Thirty million pounds of meat was recalled from the Stone Apple Valley plant in Arkansas. There have been six other recalls of meat, one of milk and just today a cheese recall. But Dr. Pamela Diaz says Listeria is not confined to the food industry.
MDR. PAMELA DIAZ, Chicago Department of Health: It’s found in the soil, found on plants, found in animals, found in humans. It’s a very, very ubiquitous organism, and because of that, it is also very hardy, because of the fact that it is surrounding us at all times.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Those conditions make it difficult for the industry to combat it, according to American Meat Institute Spokesperson Sara Lilygren.
SARA LILYGREN, American Meat Institute: You can keep your plant as clean as possible, and it can still sneak in. I mean, we have companies actually cook their equipment to 160 degrees as a last-ditch effort to try and destroy the bacteria. It can live in the threads of screws, and all kinds of little places that you wouldn’t even imagine.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Lilygren says the bacteria can sneak into the product before it is packaged.
SARA LILYGREN: The challenge is after the product is cooked in a plant, but before the product is put in a package in the plant, there is a period of time during which the product is handled, or transported, sometimes the product is sliced. And so there is a brief period of time when that cooked product that contains no bacteria because it’s been cooked thoroughly, is exposed to the air, and that’s the time when the Listeria can sneak in, if you will. And then the product is sealed in the package, and nobody knows.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Although it is not yet known how to get rid of all Listeria, investigators at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta have made significant progress in tracing it to its source, in order to contain outbreaks. When the women in Memphis died, Dr. Robert Tauxe led the CDC’s investigation. He had the help of a new tool, DNA fingerprinting.
DR. ROBERT TAUXE, Centers for Disease Control: There is this fingerprinting method, which is to take the DNA of the bacteria, that has been isolated from the sick person, and to basically cut it into small pieces and to compare the size and length of those small pieces in a way that is really very similar to the kind of DNA fingerprinting that’s done on drops of blood at a crime scene.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The testing begins at labs like this one at the Illinois Public Health Department. First, bacteria is isolated from the product. If Listeria is found after a 48-hour incubation period, it is then analyzed by computer.
SCIENTIST: We just convert it and send that directly to the CDC, and then they analyze it on their computer.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The information is then sent to the CDC through a new system called Pulsenet, which was activated fully for the first time during the deadly Listeria outbreak.
DR. ROBERT TAUXE: Our power in our investigations come when we find that there is a repeat offender, if you will, that there is an infection that is caused by the same strain in a number of different people. Then we say, uh-huh, there must be something in common amongst all these people.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: After a common strain was found, survivors were interviewed for a common source, which turned out to be the Ballpark hot dogs. A recall was issued, and the plant stopped producing the frankfurters. A lawsuit followed, with Attorney Kenneth Moll alleging that the conditions in the plant in Michigan were to blame.
KENNETH MOLL, Plaintiff’s Attorney: It was clear one part of the plant was unlike the other side of the plant. It was like night and day. It looked almost like a storage room or a garage. But it was totally different than the rest of the plant, and that’s where they made the Ballpark franks, the hot dog part of the plant. There were — the ceilings were too low, there were shared air ways right near the hot dog plant is what’s called the inedible pit. And this is all the bad meat, the outdated meat, meat that fell on the ground, meat that was moldy, or came in — it was too old meat. That same room shared the same airways as the room where they packaged the meat.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Sara Lee has not responded publicly to those charges, but the company has reopened a turkey breast processing line at the Michigan plant using a new procedure, re-heating the meat after it is packaged.
SARA LILYGREN: As far as we know, this germ cannot get into a package after the package is sealed, so in package pasteurization will really help. And there are two main ways to do that, either with heat or with irradiation.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the government thinks more needs to be done. Yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture held a press conference to tell meat packaging plants they have 30 days to find better ways to prevent Listeria from contaminating their products. They also urge companies to do environmental and product testing.
THOMAS BILLY, Food Safety and Inspection Service: The bottom line is we expect all plants producing ready-to-eat products to have steps in place to prevent contamination or recontamination of products.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The USDA also launched an education campaign on the Internet and in print warning those at risk to thoroughly reheat processed meats and to avoid soft cheeses. The USDA also will gather data to decide if warning labels on packages might be necessary, a move favored by consumer groups.