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If your food habits are anything like mine, you may have just polished off a container of Blue Bell ice cream as news of the latest product recall hit the airwaves. After a limited recall earlier this month (which was confined to specific products from the company’s Oklahoma factory), Blue Bell has now pulled all of its products from supermarkets. This newest recall also follows a Sabra recall of some of its hummus products. What’s the buzz about Listeria, and why are we hearing so much about it lately?
Blue Bell’s complete recall is a voluntary one, which is based on findings of the deadly Listeria bacteria in its Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream (produced on March 17 & 27). Blue Bell has also preemptively halted all shipments from all three of its factories. So first thing’s first — toss out the Blue Bell or return it to the grocery store. Here are some facts about why Listeria is so dangerous:
(1) A most deadly bacteria: Listeria is the 3rd leading cause of food poisoning deaths. Approximately 1,600 people in the United States fall ill after ingesting Listeria every year. About 1/5 of infections result in death. The illness caused by Listeria ingestion is called Listeriosis (a bacterial infection caused by Listeria monocytogenes).
(2) Listeria is incredibly difficult to track: When people eat food that’s tainted by Listeria, the incubation period varies from 3 to 70 days. By the time illness takes root, it’s difficult to identify the source of the bacteria.
(3) Those most vulnerable to a Listeria infection: Anyone can come down with Listeriosis, but 90% of people who develop infections fall into the following categories: (a) Newborns; (b) The Elderly; (c) Pregnant women; (d) Those with compromised immune systems.
(4) Types of food that can be contaminated: Listeria can infect almost any type of food at any stage in the preparation process. This bacteria can lurk in uncooked foods (like deli meat, soft cheeses, and sprouts), find a welcome home on the hulls of fruits and vegetables, and it can survive and grow in refrigerators. (A more complete list of foods most frequently contaminated by Listeria can be found here.)
(5) The added danger of ice cream: Ice cream has a longer freezer life than many other foods, so it’s possible that a contaminated tub of the sweet stuff can hang in your freezer for years. Blue Bell isn’t sure how long their supply has been at risk, so they say it’s wise to dump any of their product (no matter how old).
(6) Other likely sources of Listeria besides food itself: Listeria can survive on food preparation surfaces and on the surfaces of appliances, countertops, and improperly washed dishes and silverware.
(7) The U.S. government takes Listeria very seriously: The Centers for Disease Control created a surveillance system called the Listeria initiative. This program requires prompt reporting by health officials and investigation of all Listeriosis cases. Clinical labs are required to submit positive samples for DNA fingerprinting to be compared on the PulseNet network, which tracks foodborne illness and detects patterns and clusters of bacteria that cause illness.
(8) Symptoms of Listeriosis: Listeria can infect many parts of the body. In most cases, the bacteria causes stomach upset, fever, and flu-like symptoms. In more severe cases, meningoencephalitis can develop (with a high fever plus intense headache, nausea, vomiting).
(9) Treatment of Listeriosis: Doctors will observe symptoms and may take a blood test. Antibiotics are often effective against this type of infection. Hospitalization will be required in severe cases.
(10) Food preparation practices are important: The four basic guidelines to lower exposure to Listeria (and all food-borne illness) are (a) Clean; (b) Separate; (c) Cook; (d) Chill. (More specific guidelines can be found at WebMD.)