Food & Drink

An FDA study of ice cream makers found over 20% had foodborne illness bacteria

Listeria is rare but dangerous

Listeria is a bacteria that can cause food-borne illness, known as listeriosis. It can grow in foods such as uncooked meats, vegetables, soft cheeses and unpasteurized milk.
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Listeria is a bacteria that can cause food-borne illness, known as listeriosis. It can grow in foods such as uncooked meats, vegetables, soft cheeses and unpasteurized milk.

A two-year Food and Drug Administration study of ice cream production plants found 21.3 percent had listeria and 50.6 percent had “objectionable conditions or practices,” the agency announced this week.

One ice cream factory, St. Petersburg’s Working Cow Homemade, violated food safety guidelines so egregiously, the FDA suspended its food facility registration. Working Cow closed, then reopened for just ice cream storage and distribution.

The FDA spent 2016 and 2017 inspecting and taking environmental samples from 89 ice cream plants in 32 states, spurred by two foodborne illness facts: There were 16 ice cream product recalls for pathogens from 2013 through 2016, and three people died in the 2015 Blue Bell Ice Cream listeria outbreak.

(That’s not to be confused with Blue Bell’s 2016 listeria-caused recall. The listeria problem in that recall was at cookie dough ingredient supplier Aspen Hills.)

Listeria hits 1,600 people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and kills about 260.

Some combination of headaches, stiff necks, fever, muscle aches and convulsions usually start one to four weeks after eating contaminated food. Pregnant women (stillbirths, miscarriages), babies, senior citizens and people with damaged immune systems are the most vulnerable to the worst of listeria.

“In selecting facilities for inclusion in the assignment, the agency sought to ensure representation from throughout the country and favored larger establishments whose product would be expected to reach greater numbers of consumers,” the FDA explained. “At the time the assignment was conducted, the 89 ice cream production facilities inspected accounted for about 16 percent of the domestic ice cream manufacturers in the FDA’s inventory.”

Here’s what they found:

Listeria in 19 of 89 establishments, 21.3 percent. Of the 19 facilities with listeria, only Working Cow’s place had listeria on a food contact surface. (Though the facilities are identified only by state in the results table, Working Cow was identifiable via the regulatory response being “voluntary recalls, suspension of food facility registration.”)

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Working Cow was one of six places to get “Official Action Indicated,” meaning “significant violations accompanied by regulatory follow-up.” Other places were in California, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York. Each had listeria.

39 inspections, 43.8 percent, resulted in “Voluntary Action Indicated.” That means “objectionable conditions or practices were observed and documented, but the operation should be able to address them without official action.

As far as salmonella, only one establishment had that pathogen, and that was found on a peripheral area (described by the FDA as “walls, forklifts or doorways leading to food production areas”). The factory was in Florida.

Since 1989, David J. Neal’s domain at the Miami Herald has expanded to include writing about Panthers (NHL and FIU), Dolphins, old school animation, food safety, fraud, naughty lawyers, bad doctors and all manner of breaking news. He drinks coladas whole. He does not work Indianapolis 500 Race Day.


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