Listeria Outbreak Has Non-Organic Meat Producers Worried

Headline: Deadly hot dog contamination may be linked to dust
Wire Service: RTf (Reuters Financial Report)
Date: Wed, Feb 10, 1999

By Julie Vorman
WASHINGTON, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Construction dust from repairs at a
Michigan meat plant may have been the cause of a listeria outbreak in
packaged hot dogs that claimed 16 lives, U.S. government investigators said
on Wednesday.
The deadly outbreak was the worst in a series of recent listeria
contamination cases that are testing the Clinton Administration's resolve
to improve food safety. The eruption of cases also has scientists worried
that new, more resistant strains of bacteria may be emerging in
ready-to-eat foods that consumers do not cook.
Listeria, a microscopic bacteria that clings to drainpipes, plastic
surfaces and the spiral threads of screws, is common in the environment and
not dangerous to most people. But unborn babies, small children, the
elderly and others with weakened immune systems can die from a virulent
strain of the bacteria.
Hot dog and deli meat production at Sara Lee Corp's <SLE.N Zeeland,
Michigan plant was halted last month after investigators traced some 70
illnesses to meat from the plant. Government investigators spent weeks
reviewing company records, tests and other data but found no obvious cause.
"Our working hypothesis now is that construction generated dust which
may have contaminated the product," Dr. Paul Mead, an epidemiologist with
the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, told reporters. "We believe this is a
reasonable theory."
The plant's air conditioning system was being repaired and modernized
when the tainted meats were processed, Mead said.
The CDC will issue a final report on the outbreak in the next two
weeks, he said.
The Sara Lee outbreak began last August among consumers in 14 states
who ate Bil Mar brand meats, according to the CDC.
Scientists with the CDC, the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Food
and Drug Administration met with more than 200 food industry executives,
consumer groups and health experts on Wednesday to discuss ways of
preventing listeria outbreaks.
Tom Billy, administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection
Service, said regulators would issue stricter meat processing guidelines by
the end of the month. But the guidelines do not carry the force of law
until the USDA has conducted a formal rulemaking procedure, he noted.
"What worked in the past won't automatically work in the future," Billy
said, referring to government and industry food safety practices.
A growing number of Americans have weakened immune systems and are more
vulnerable to food poisoning and the shelf life of refrigerated processed
foods has been extended to several months instead of weeks, he said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest urged the USDA to require
companies to test ready-to-eat meats for listeria. The USDA randomly tests
a small number of samples each year.
"In some instances, lawyers have advised their companies not to test
for listeria because they simply don't want to know if product is
contaminated," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, head of food safety for the
consumer group.
Meat companies oppose new testing, saying the focus should be on ways
to improve the manufacturing process.
"The Bil Mar recall is one that got everybody in the industry saying,
'holy smokes, what can we do here?'" said one meat industry official. "We
think there is some promising technology and we want to get working in that
The technology includes treating packaged foods with high temperatures
for pasteurization and the use of irradiation, he said.
Irradiation, a procedure which uses tiny doses of gamma rays to kill
bacteria in food, was approved for use on red meat by the FDA last year,
but the USDA has dragged its heels in developing rules for its use. Billy
said on Wednesday that the department would issue the long-awaited rules
later this week.
About 1,300 cases of listeriosis are reported to federal health
officials annually, and one out of every five patients dies. Scientists say
those numbers are likely to rise, with more public health departments
reporting foodborne disease to the CDC and new DNA tests that can link