The Outbreak that Won’t End

The Outbreak that Won’t End

Alexis ChapmanWednesday,22 June 2016

Last week another batch of frozen foods was recalled due to possible listeria contamination. This time it was frozen peas and mixed vegetables from Bountiful Harvest, Great Value, Live Smart, Market Pantry, First Street, and Sprout. These products are just the latest to become part of a listeria outbreak that has already affected hundreds of other products sold under dozens of brand names in every state and has been going on since March of this year. The particular strains of listeria bacteria involved in this outbreak have been around since 2013. So far these listeria have only sickened eight people and haven’t been linked to any deaths but ignoring the short and long term ramifications of this, and the several other listeria outbreaks and recalls that are going on right now, would be huge mistake.

Listeria is fatal about 16% of the time. Each year in the U.S. there are estimated to be approximately 1600 cases, 260 of which result in death. The CDC lists the symptoms of listeria contamination as “headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions in addition to fever and muscle aches.” These are in addition to gastrointestinal issues that the bacteria can cause. And of course for certain groups like older people or people with compromised immune systems, the effects are worse. The most vulnerable population are pregnant women who seem to be more susceptible to the bacteria. In addition to the regular symptoms, listeria can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, and health problems in babies that can last a lifetime. Those are the biggest scariest costs, but there are financial tolls are well. Each sickness incurs medical expenses and each recall means losses that will never be recuperated for stores stocking the products, the brands that market them, the manufacturers that make them, and for consumers who had to dispose of products — if they were lucky enough to hear about the possible contamination (the under-reporting of this outbreak could be a story in and of itself).

The reason for all this is of course the food systems we’ve created in the U.S. We have extremely efficient and cost effective industrial food processing. For many products, different brands are all processed and packaged at a few plants and then shipped across the country. Listeria bacteria are perfectly adapted to spread through these systems. The bacteria are found in some soils, water, and animals, so listeria can end up in vegetables or animal products. It can survive freezing and in order to kill it you have to thoroughly cook or pasteurize food. It’s found in things we don’t normally cook like lunchmeat, and the incubation period is a few days, so it can be hard to identify what exactly made a person sick. It’s also found in products that last a long time like frozen foods or sunflower seeds, so it can lurk in our pantries or freezers for months or years before causing problems. Even when (if) this current outbreak is finally contained by the processors it could still lead to illnesses, or even another outbreak later. If even one processing plant picks up the bacteria from a contaminated vegetable or other product it can pretty quickly spread it throughout the tons and tons of food that passes through the processing plant. The fact that only eight people have been sickened so far could be taken as evidence that the system works, and in certain ways it does. But the fact that a potentially deadly bacteria has been spread around the entire country for months, and is still being circulated, should be an opportunity to start asking questions about whether or not this is the food system we want.

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Image Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr

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